An Ottawa mother says she wants public libraries across Canada to consider setting up an adults-only computer section after her two daughters were exposed to hard-core pornography at their local branch this summer.
The incident, first reported by CBC News, occurred in July as the family was visiting Ottawa’s Greenboro library.
Jennifer St. Pierre had brought her daughters, 11 and 13, to the facility to pick out some reading material when one of them reported that she’d seen a man watching something “inappropriate” on a nearby computer.
“I was standing at the shelf behind him, and I could see that he was on a porn site … so I just quickly went to the library desk and let the lady know and we left right away,” St. Pierre said.
“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that that’s what he was watching.”
She was even more disturbed to learn that the Ottawa Public Library’s official position was that the man (who was over 18) was within his rights to access legal pornography on the computer system — even though he was in a high-traffic area.
“I think there should be firewalls in place, or at the very least there should be somewhere, an alcove,” said St. Pierre. “My 13-year-old’s books are put in an alcove off to the side where she goes to look, but this guy is sitting on the main floor.”
The St. Pierre family’s experience has prompted broader questions surrounding which side should win out when there’s a conflict between individual freedoms and the safety and comfort of others in public spaces.
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According to the library’s chief executive officer, Danielle McDonald, the library does, in fact, have filters in place on its wi-fi and wired computer systems that target illegal material like child pornography.
“However, we are not in the business of censorship,” McDonald confirmed in an emailed statement.
“The (Ottawa Public Library) aims to strike a balance between customer privacy, intellectual freedom, and the safety and security of our spaces, but there are times when it can be challenging … We recognize that there are varying points of view on this matter, and that not everyone will agree with the position of the OPL. It is, however, a fundamental tenant of a public library to uphold access to information without censorship.”
The number of incidents of users accessing what could be considered “inappropriate” material (legal porn, graphic violence, etc.) fell from 15 in 2015 to three so far in 2017, she added.
Similar policies in Halifax, Toronto
Libraries across Canada have various policies in place when it comes to porn being accessed via their computers. Toronto and Halifax, for instance, follow Ottawa’s lead and do not censor online content unless the computer terminal is specifically designated for children.
“There is no perfect filter that would filter only illegal material,” noted Michelle Leung of the Toronto Public Library.
“For example, a pornography filter might block critical information about breast cancer.”
Most libraries do, however, enforce a blanket rule that forbids behaviour which could be deemed “disruptive” or “unsafe,” or actions that affect the enjoyment of the library in a general sense.
That could easily be applied to publicly viewing porn, in which case staff can intervene and ask the user to stop what they’re doing. For the most part, said Leung, people will comply.
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In Halifax, library staff similarly reserve the right to end Internet sessions when “inappropriate” material is displayed.
“It is relatively rare that we receive complaints,” said Halifax Regional Library spokesperson Kasia Morrison, adding that staff regularly roam through the library spaces and handle situations as they arise.
The Criminal Code applies inside a library just as it does anywhere else, so accessing or distributing child pornography or obscene materials (as defined by law) can be immediately reported to the police by library staff.
The Criminal Code also includes provisions that target public indecency or public mischief, explained criminal lawyer Michael Spratt, which could potentially be used to crack down on users who access pornography in public areas, particularly those frequented by children.
“I think that we can all agree that it’s not right to expose children, especially in a place of learning, to things that are indecent or graphic or not appropriate,” he said.
But, Spratt cautioned, it’s also important to consider freedom of speech and access to information issues. Rushing to lay charges may not be the most effective approach in every situation.
“This is not a black and white area; As much of the law is, it’s a grey area,” he said. “The Criminal Code is a very poor and blunt tool to bring about social change or enact social policy.”
For her part, St. Pierre said she has an open and honest dialogue with her daughters about sexuality, but “they were seeing things that they never would have heard of” that day in the library.
She wants other parents to be aware of the possibility, however slim, that they could find themselves in a similar situation.
“Be prepared to talk about it, because it can happen.”