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How free should the Internet be in Chesterfield's libraries? A lot of money could ride on the answer.

Dirty Work


Residents of Chesterfield County might want to ask each other: What do you get when you mix hard-core pornography with a public library?

The answer: a million-dollar judgment in a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

At least that's what seems to be happening in Minneapolis. As a result, according to local legal experts, a similarly high-dollar Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case could be coming to a courtroom near you.

In May, librarians at the Minneapolis Library became sickened by some patrons' obsession with online porn. They were forced to work nearby as graphic images of sex, torture and animal pornography flickered on computer screens.

Finally 12 of the librarians filed a complaint with the EEOC arguing that they were being forced to work in what is legally termed "a hostile workplace environment." In May, the EEOC agreed with them. Damages could amount to $1 million.

But porn in the public library is not just a Midwest problem. A handful of patrons of the Chesterfield Central Library have complained that some men are viewing obscene material online during library hours.

In response, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors recently voted to put filters on all library computers.

Chesterfield's move is a rarity. According to a Library of Virginia survey, only 14 Virginia libraries use filtering or content-blocking software, but none filter all computers. There are 62 that do not use the technology.

But some workplace attorneys argue that unfiltered library computers could be an invitation to major litigation. Former Richmond City Councilman James Banks, an employment attorney with McGuireWoods, contends that Virginia libraries could be heading down the same expensive path Minneapolis wandered down.

"If the library were my client, I would advise them to do as much as possible to get it [porn] out of there," Banks says. "It could be grounds for a hostile workplace environment."

The law under which the Minneapolis librarians sued, Title VII, is a federal anti-discrimination law with the same ramifications for Richmond as it had in Minneapolis, Banks notes.

And Banks points out that things as simple as inappropriate jokes and erotic pictures taped to walls have inspired sexual-harassment lawsuits that resulted in damages.

"In workplaces that had been traditionally male and the guys had pinups on the wall, women brought suit," Banks says. "Discrimination lawsuits are the fastest-growing area of law. It's just a matter of time before you have a hostile-workplace-environment [claim] because of pornography through a computer network."

Laura Fox, employment attorney with LeClair Ryan, agrees that libraries face potential liability if they provide unmoderated access. While she cautions that she's skeptical that filters are the best answer, she says libraries need to take action to ensure that pornography is not a pervasive factor.

"Why don't they put the [unfiltered] computers in a separate room?" Fox asks. "There should be a way for librarians to not be exposed."

Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, says he sympathizes with the desire to protect personnel and patrons, but sees a fully filtered system as an obstacle to free inquiry. Many options need to be reviewed before leaping into the filter solution, he says, such as using blinders and privacy screens to block the view of passersby.

"There's a way to do this" without violating adults' right to access information freely, Willis says. "It's a matter of libraries experimenting."

All this may prove moot. Willis and others warn that Chesterfield's porn-filtering policy could be shot down in the courts.

In 1998, Loudon County attempted to add Internet filters to its library computers, arguing among other things that it sought to protect library workers from a potentially hostile workplace.

Not good enough, a federal judge said, ruling that the county hadn't proved there was a problem with online porn in the libraries. She struck down the county policy on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.

Whether libraries should employ filters or go with privacy screens is a local decision, according to Library of Virginia representative Nelson Worley. But he does see filters in the future of many libraries. "More libraries are talking about using more filters," Worley says. "Especially on children's computers."

The libraries are getting pressure from other fronts. In December, Congress passed a law cutting off money to public libraries and schools that fail to install filtering devices. This law, the Children's Internet Protection Act, which is being legally challenged by the American Library Association and civil-liberties groups, affects two federal programs that have distributed more than $972 million in the past three years to support access to technology.

Kevin Hoeft, director of resource development of the Family Foundation, argues that Internet filters are important because without them libraries could become magnets for sexual predators. Hoeft points to a case at a library in the state of Washington in which a 17-year-old male exposed himself to an 11-year-old girl while he was viewing pornography on the Internet.

"You're making your library into an adult peep show," Hoeft says. "It contributes to making our libraries unsafe."

To avoid interference with legitimate research, Hoeft suggests overrides on the filters. After making a request to a librarian an adult would have unfettered access for research purposes. At present, Chesterfield Public Libraries do not have an override policy in place. But Chesterfield Supervisors Vice Chairman Kelly Miller wants the library system to develop one.

"We're not trying to frustrate legitimate researchers," Miller says. "We're looking for ways to make it the least intrusive system possible."

Miller, an attorney who has represented employers in labor litigation, says he worries about the legal troubles unfiltered Internet access could create.

"We have a county [hostile-workplace] policy to avoid that type of thing," Miller says. "I'm concerned that if we don't step in to filter it could create" [litigation].

And where there's a lawsuit, there's money being spent. In a successful hostile-workplace lawsuit, a sympathetic jury could easily slap a library system with $1 million in damages, Fox says. In addition, the institution most likely would be forced to pay plaintiffs' attorney fees -- possibly as high as $2 million.

"That," Fox observes, "can get very expensive."

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