MOUSS Services to Adults Committee

1998 Annual Meeting Program Report

A program on Internet policy presented by the Services to Adults Committee of MOUSS on Sunday, June 28, 1998 at 2 p.m. in the Sheraton City Centre in Washington was well attended. The program consisted of three panelists who discussed several issues dealing with formulating an Internet policy. Each issue was taken one at a time and covered by the panelists after an introduction by Billie Peterson, Moderator and Chair of the Committee.

A unique perspective was provided by the attorney who was on the panel--Theresa Chmara, a partner in the Washington office of Jenner & Block. The other two panelists presented a public library perspective (Gail Junion-Metz, President of Information Age Consultants) and an academic library viewpoint (Sara Martin, University of Nebraska). Each issue was taken one at a time and covered by the panelists after an introduction by Billie Peterson, Moderator and Chair of the Committee.

Issues covered were:

1) The bare-bones policy, which should include: Philosophy; definitions of terms, of users, and of resources; responsibilities of users such as acceptable use; ethics; privacy; abuse and how enforced; and the responsibilities of the institution, such as an agreement that the institution will not reveal information on patrons’ use. All agreed you should have a policy in place before allowing access to the Internet. The attorney said it was essential to prevent legal problems.

2) Different types of policies (short or detailed; separate or incorporated into other policies; one for patrons, another for staff): The attorney emphasized the following considerations when formulating policy. Can they be applied objectively? For example, saying that patrons are permitted to print a "reasonable amount of printing" without specifying what "reasonable" is leaves too much room for interpretation. Be as specific as possible (although you will still need some general statements because you never know what will come up). Tie to the mission and purpose of the library. Enforce consistently; write your policy so that it can be consistently enforced. Provide an appeal process, even if informal. Have distinct policies for patrons and staff.

3) Types of services provided (what to include and exclude has repercussions that must be thought through): Should you include access to e-mail, mailing lists, chat, and ftp. Are you excluding some things you should not be if you deny these services to patrons? Be sure to think it through. In a university setting, research use usually has priority--but what is research? It could be almost anything. Oftentimes recreational use is allowed as long as no one else is waiting, and policies are not violated

4) Instruction and training: Will different populations be trained differently (faculty, staff, students, and the community for a university; staff, adults, minors for a public library)? Should you require training before allowing access? How much training for staff and how do you do it? What kind of training do you not provide (some types of technical training, for example)? Tell them who can help them.

5) Filtering as applied to adults: Filtering vs. blocking? Should you filter? When you decide on policy, you should decide on why you are providing Internet access. Educational vs. recreational: How does one define recreational? How does this fit with the rest of the library's policies--for example, most libraries do not provide X-rated videos even though they have a video collection. Ms. Chmara had much to say on this issue. She pointed out that most court cases so far say you cannot restrict access for adults. One case in Virginia said if you provide access to the Internet at all, you must provide access to all of it. Otherwise, it would be like cutting out sections of an encyclopedia or a magazine. The main question is are you removing something (which is censorship and covered by first amendment rights) or are you being selective in providing something. Another law (Virginia again) said that employees could not access sexually explicit sites on employer time. However, they could play solitaire. This is censoring on content and was not allowed by the court. You could say that all work on the computer on company time has to be work-related but you cannot exclude a specific category. In another case (so far undecided) in Santa Barbara, a parent is suing the library because her son downloaded pictures from a pornographic site and distributed them to his class and around town. So far, the legal decisions have clearly been saying that you risk liability on first amendment if you filter, especially for adults.

6) Enforcement and liability: Responsibilities of the institution relate to privacy and intellectual property (especially at a university). Patrons should be warned that their files could be accessed if needed to fix problems. Responsibilities of the users include the fact that the burden of knowledge about policy is on the user. Other issues include the use of state resources (especially for staff), copyright issues, and plagiarism. Public libraries should especially think about state and local legal requirements that might apply.

Another question is how do you inform patrons of policies, enforcement, and liabilities. It was suggested that you place copyright notices by Internet computers similar to what we do for copiers. Ms. Chmara said that consistency in enforcement is critical. Courts will defer to policies if applied consistently and equally to all and if they are reasonable. She said using sexual harassment as a means of enforcing what sites patrons can access may not work because courts have generally held that one "accidental" incident is not enough to constitute sexual harassment. If a patron prints something and waves it in the employee's face, that is another matter. There is an obligation to protect employees and that includes racial or other hostile actions as well as sexual. The tension between rights of patrons and obligations to employees has not been resolved in court yet. Another issue is whether the library can be held responsible for the actions of patrons. The key is that you must state that you do not condone certain actions, you must allow a procedure for complaint, and you must publicize your policy. This advice does not just apply to the Internet but to all your policies. Police can be called at any time to enforce policies, especially when you feel in danger. Always err on the side of safety.

A copy of this program is available on audiocassette. Please visit the ALA web site at