Why watching porn in Chicago’s libraries is allowed and why staff can’t do much about it

CHICAGO — Watching pornography in libraries is nothing new. The public institutions argued for decades that patrons' right to do so is protected by the First Amendment.

WGN News first explored the topic 10 years ago, asking some difficult questions of Chicago Public Libraries to try and determine why so many adults were looking at pornographic images at the Harold Washington Library. Back in late 2008, Mary Dempsey was the commissioner at the library.

"No library is in favor of this, but we have no control,” Dempsey said.

A decade later, the problem continues to exist for patrons who find pornography a nuisance, and the Harold Washington Library continues to be a go-to spot.

What has changed is the tone of people in the industry at places like the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago. Deborah Caldwell-Stone with the Office for Intellectual Freedom said technology and the law has not changed, but behavior policies have. Such policies prohibit disturbances in the interest of keeping the peace.

“We’ve reached a point where the technology hasn’t changed very much in the last decade, law hasn’t changed, the nature of the library as a public space hasn’t changed,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Libraries have come to the point where behavior policies and internet use policies are the best way to address these issues.”

Different libraries have different behavior policies. Some don’t allow pornography to be viewed at their library at all, and users risk being banned from computers there. Others use filters to cut down on the viewing of crude images.

But privacy screens don’t do enough, and internet filters regularly fail. Experts and the ALA call internet blocking software meant to screen out pornography “dumb," saying it can also block constitutionally-protected materials.

“The problem with internet filters is they are not a silver bullet. They don’t work as advertised,” Caldwell-Stone said. “They over-block constitutionally protected materials, they under-block materials we are targeting which might be obscene materials or child pornography.”

Since special domains designated for X-rated sites never really took off, many libraries are left tolerating the behavior as they did a decade ago.

“The library is not the villain here. We are not promoting pornography, endorsing it... We are making a medium available to people, and that is the internet,” Dempsey said in 2008.

At Chicago's public libraries, it’s what you do rather than what you watch that matters, unless it's illegal material like child pornography.

In 2019, if someone has a problem with another user’s obscene screen images, that person can move or ask a staffer or security to move the user viewing indecent images. Guards are stationed in the room, but they do not watch what viewers are calling up on their screens. They are instructed to only act when there’s a disturbance.

“We don’t look over people’s shoulders while they are reading and that goes for books, magazines, newspapers even the internet,” Caldwell-Stone said.

Chicago's current Commissioner Brian Bannon declined to speak to WGN about pornography in the adult section of Chicago’s landmark library, but the ALA maintains the behavior you see there and in other parts of the country is infrequent at best.

From the archives:  WGN's Julie Unruh's report from 2008

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