Fundamental to the public library’s mission is support for free and open access to information for all members of our community.  This role is passed down to us from notable American forebears such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Carnegie.  It also is mandated by law and protected as an inalienable right guaranteed in the United States Constitution. 
It is not unusual for individuals or groups to occasionally try to abridge this right by censoring information in the public library.  In most cases, it is a sincerely concerned person who believes censorship can improve society, protect children, and restore what the censor sees as lost moral values.  But the First Amendment guarantees adults the right to read, view, listen to, and disseminate constitutionally-protected information, even if a censor finds it offensive.
One arena where this can be challenging today is the Internet.   It presents opportunities for more individuals to publish more freely than ever before in the history of humankind.  The availability of so much diverse information to such a wide audience presents great opportunities, but it also can be problematic. 
The use of the Internet at PCCLD is very popular as it is in public libraries throughout the nation.  This service clearly is important to many in our community, but especially so for the socially and economically disadvantaged who have no or only limited Internet access otherwise.  Library professionals refer to this as the digital divide, or economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, and impact of the Internet.  Narrowing the digital divide has been shown to improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, and economic equality and growth.  Some examples of the added value for Internet access include job applications now are frequently online only, increased educational success at all levels and improved career development, vital access to social services and health information, cost-saving advantages of online shopping, locating transportation or safe and affordable housing, connecting with family and friends, assisting on the path to integration and citizenship, and so on.
Disregarding these essential benefits, a community member may occasionally express personal distaste to me with Internet access at the public library because of the easy access to things like hate and sex sites, spam, deceptive marketing and scams, and online stalking.  Such an individual may be displeased with Internet use in the library.  But this is contrary to the law and accepted practice.
The rules around Internet access in public libraries have been helpfully clarified by the courts, and state and federal legislatures.  The United States Supreme Court ruled the Internet deserves the same level of constitutional protection as books, magazines, newspapers, and speakers on a street corner soapbox.  Among pertinent rulings is the case of Reno, Attorney General of the United States et al v. American Civil Liberties Union et al in 1997 when the Supreme Court issued a sweeping reaffirmation of the core First Amendment principles as it pertains to the Internet.  A second landmark case occurred in 2003 in United States v. American Library Association that further defined appropriate Internet use in public libraries.  State and federal legislatures also have passed laws providing additional guidance.  This occurred most prominently on the federal level with the Children’s Internet Protection Act in 2000 and in Colorado in 2004 when the Internet Protection in Public Libraries Act (CRS Article 90, Part 6, 24-90-601 to 606) was signed into law. 
PCCLD practice, and that of nearly every American public library, aligns with the law and the courts.  To the extent possible, PCCLD upholds and affirms the rights of adults to access constitutionally-protected materials.    But PCCLD expressly prohibits use of library equipment to access obscene material or child pornography; and, in the case of minors, material that is “harmful to minors.”  Customers accessing the Internet at our libraries are responsible for complying with library policy and applicable federal and state laws.  When library employees encounter misuse of library Internet computers, they are trained generally to respond first with a warning but with more stringent measures if the person does not comply.  The library district also maintains Internet filtering software on all public-use computers to help ensure compliance.  Yet no filtering software is entirely accurate.  Filters may falsely block material that is appropriate or may fail to block illicit material.  Customers may request we change the Internet filter to restrict access to specific sites or allow access to certain blocked sites.  Adults may also request the filter be temporarily disabled to conduct research or for other lawful purposes. 
Librarians do encourage individuals to be discerning about information in all formats, including the Internet.  Librarians are available to guide an individual’s Internet use to better ensure sufficient analysis and evaluation of online sources that are vetted for appropriateness, accuracy, currency, and authority.  Nevertheless, each adult enjoys the right to use the Internet as she or he sees fit, so long as it does not violate the law or inhibit its use by others.
PCCLD takes seriously its obligation—both ethical and legal—to provide free and equal access to information for all, even when that information may be controversial, unorthodox, or unacceptable to some.  The Internet embodies all the potential and the difficulty of this responsibility.  Preserving the rights of unfettered access with the penchant of a few to restrict information is both a noble and a thorny calling.   


The library is a learning institution.  First and foremost, the Pueblo City-County Library District (PCCLD) exists to ensure members of our...