s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

For Ellie Muelrath, the case for putting Internet filters in Sonoma County's libraries was made vivid last December.

With three children in tow, she was looking for Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" when her stepdaughter, then 12, glimpsed one of the public computer screens at the main library in downtown Santa Rosa.

"She whispered, &‘Oh my God, that guy was looking at porn,'" Muelrath said.

Such experiences inspired the Sonoma County grand jury to again push the library to use Internet filters in its annual report released this summer. The grand jury also recommended reorganizing the layout of the computers to make them less visible to passersby in the downtown branch.

But both the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sonoma County Library Commission are declining to follow the grand jury's recommendations.

On Wednesday, supervisors sidestepped the issue, saying that library policy is governed by a seven-member library commission.

Last month, the commission wrote a lengthy response outlining practical and philosophical flaws with using software to limit where people may go online and with rearranging computers.

No library patron should be subjected to objectionable material, the response said. But it also said no one viewing things on the Internet should be subject to the censorship from a computer program that decides what is appropriate.

Software filters are costly, ineffective and rife with troubling questions about where the line gets drawn, the statement said. Sexual images offend many, but what about violence or even extreme political views, asked Julia Freis, a local attorney and a member of the commission.

"When you start censoring, it is a slippery slope," she said. "We don't really want to be in the position of censoring. It's against the library's mission."

The library said it prefers to respond to the people who cause problems.

Library officials said they are vigilant against violations of the computer user agreement that calls on patrons to "avoid viewing material that might be considered objectionable to other library users."

If someone complains, a librarian shows the suspected offender the terms of the agreement and reminds them they are in a public place.

Another infraction can result in a day-long suspension. Typically, though, many are so embarrassed they quickly leave.

"Very rarely do they ever come back," said library director Sandy Cooper.

Since starting a log last September, the library system has recorded 45 incidents of patrons suspected of viewing pornography on library computers. Muelrath, of Santa Rosa, was one of those filing a complaint.

The Petaluma branch recorded the most problems, with 15, followed by central Santa Rosa with 12 incidents and Sebastopol with four.

Those are low numbers considering that more than 150 computers spread over 11 branches are probably in use for 90 percent of the time that the libraries are open, said Doug Cisney, interim branch manager of the downtown library.

Members of the grand jury could not be reached Wednesday. In their report, they said that the library is rightly concerned about First Amendment issues, but is putting those worries above even more pressing matters.

Library policymakers "seem to be more concerned with preserving the right to access these images by consenting adults than protecting our minor children," the report said.

In one incident in March, an adult was found looking at pornography on a computer reserved for children at the Cloverdale branch.

Cooper said the man was stopped from continuing. There was no report of children accessing pornography.

The library also declined to rearrange computers to make them less visible to others. Not only would that entail great expense, it would make it easier for people to view pornography, the commission wrote.

Freis said she didn't expect any further action by the library commission, but the issue may return again. The 2008-09 grand jury also delved into the matter of library filters.

Muelrath, for one, would be happy for the issue to get more attention. An avid reader, she now reserves books online to avoid exposing her three daughters to a repeat performance. Pornography should be filtered at the library, she said.

"It should not be somewhere where children can view it," she said. "It's a public place."

You can contact Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or at sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.