Micheal Vonn: A discussion about Intellectual Freedom, Civil Liberties, and Libraries

On November 24th, Micheal Vonn, Policy Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, came to Vancouver Community College to talk to several library workers at a BCLA sponsored event about the issue of the right to view sexually explicit material in a public library juxtaposed to the perceived need to restrict its availability.

Micheal talked about BCCLA’s approach to these kinds of issues, which she says is less about advocacy than about trying to get interested groups on the same side of the issue, and figure out how we bring together the various public goods.

She mentions section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a key one to balancing competing rights and freedoms.  It says the rights and freedoms in the Charter are guaranteed “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”  Micheal describes a test, known as the Oakes test, used to determine the limits of various rights when competing against other rights.

Recently, BCCLA was consulted on the question of the right to view sexual explicit materials at one of the public computer terminals at Vancouver Public Library.  Micheal started off by drawing a comparison to a medical privacy issue.  In this example, the RCMP want to look at a patient’s record.  The medical professional wants to protect the right of the patient.  The fairest solution is to use a neutral solution, in this case a warrant from a judge.

Returning to the VPL case, the important objective is to have an ethic of wanting to ensure availability for all.  You don’t want to restrict access for the person viewing the images.  On the other hand, the access of others is restricted if they avoid the computer area because of the visibility of the images.

Micheal says that the best hope is for a spatial fix, where users can view the images in a secluded area.  At the same time there are issues the VPL faces that may complicate their ability to respond with a spatial fix.  These could include budgetary constraints as well as limits of available space or the ability to organize the space in certain ways.  Ultimately, we want the constraints upon access to be as minimal as possible. Such a restriction is the least desirable outcome.  With a Section 1 analysis, what you want is the least restrictive thing that is reasonable.  All factors, such and space, money, and the right policies are considered.

A discussion followed with members of the audience. One audience member pointed out that there are many different user groups that could have various interests with respect to library policies.  Micheal responded that we are currently dealing with the issue that exists.

Another member asked why the default position is to restrict use for the user viewing images.  Micheal said that not all user groups will be viewed equally where the balance of rights is concerned.  One of the user groups, those that will view the images, will tend to be very young.  On the other hand some folks who come to the libraries just for the computers because they don’t have one at home, and use the computers for job search, email, and so forth, will tend to be very disadvantaged.

Yet another audience member made a suggestion, not about policy, but about tact in dealing with such an issue when it’s happening.  She suggested going up to the user viewing the images, and ask them to look at the image as well as the surrounding physical and social environment, and think about everyone who can see the image that user is viewing.  She said that this approach usually works.

One member of the audience suggested staff training to enhance the ability to deal with individual cases as they arise.

Another attendee proposed distinguishing between images designed for pornographic entertainment, and images that serve an educational purpose, such as those that might be found on an HIV/AIDS education website.  Micheal responded by saying that we don’t want to get to the point where we are interrogating the private thoughts of users, which is what we’d be doing if we were considering the source of the images.

Yet another point that was raised in the audience was the notion that those who want to view sexually explicit images might actually want to be discreet, and are being constrained by the library not making such spaces available.

The ability to view sexually graphic images in a public library is certainly an issue that will not disappear anytime soon.  However, the talk and lively discussion which took place at this event provided a helpful framework through which to view the issue, as well as possible perspectives through which the issue can be filtered.

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