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Porn Posse

library
Image Problem: Gilroy citizens working to purge porn from the county library system want special software installed to deny kids access to sites such as this.

Photo by Christopher Gardner



Gilroy's moral crusaders patrol the Santa Clara County library system for Internet sex and demand that local librarians be arrested, while free-speech advocates look to apply the First Amendment to the World Wide Web.

By Jim Rendon

TWO FUNDAMENTALIST Christian activists walked into the Gilroy public library with a police officer a couple of months ago. They passed the librarian's desk and headed for the children's section. They were looking for pornography.

Sandi Zappa, a thin woman with short blond hair, sat at the children's computer and began searching the World Wide Web. She ignored the librarian who told her to move because the computer was reserved for children. In less than 10 minutes of pointing and clicking, Zappa found what she wanted: a picture of a woman defecating into a man's mouth. She printed the photo and gave it to the officer. Mission accomplished.

Zappa and her accomplice, Matthew Drummond, a round-faced man with a close-cut mustache, told the police officer they wanted the librarian arrested for allowing children to have access to illegal pornography--a violation of California law.

But no one in the library was cuffed. And by the time the case made its way to the district attorney's office, charges were dropped because there was no victim. Despite the potential for access, a child had not viewed the photograph.

Zappa says Santa Clara County libraries are getting away with criminal activity that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

"If children access pornography over the Internet at my business, I would be criminally responsible," Zappa says. "Why is the library set aside?"

All eight libraries in the county library system have access to the Internet. The county system, like most others throughout the country, has a policy of open access to the Internet for everyone. Supporters of this policy say the library is obligated to provide complete access to information; any other policy, they say, would be censorship.

But some members of a politically active fundamentalist church in Gilroy say protecting children from pornography is more important than protecting free speech.

Members of the South Valley Community Church, and others drawn to the issue, have used confrontational tactics from the beginning to get their message across. Last October, Zappa approached Lani Yoshimura, Gilroy's head librarian, about pornography on the Internet. In response, Yoshimura made some changes that increased the privacy of the Internet computers.

But that did not address Zappa's fundamental concern over children online, so she sought legal advice from the National Law Center for Families and Children. This Southern California organization provides information about obscenity law to governments, prosecutors and people like Zappa who are trying to restrict access to pornography.

With help from this group, Zappa sent a series of letters to Yoshimura arguing that the library was breaking the law. She cited California Penal Code 313, which prohibits the distribution of pornography to minors.

Zappa and others took their case to a meeting of the Joint Powers Authority Board, which governs the county library system. She brought along a binder stuffed full of color printouts of sexually graphic photos from the Web--material available to anyone with a modem. Though Zappa and her supporters were too late to have their issue considered, they were allowed to address the board.

Renegade Librarians

EARLY IN THE MEETING, Drummond asked a police officer to arrest board chairwoman Patricia Williams. He said the board had violated the law by talking in private. After conferring with his supervisor, the officer refused to arrest Williams.

At another meeting last week, Drummond accused the library advisory committee of violating the law by limiting public comment to three minutes for each speaker. Drummond insisted that each speaker had the right to five minutes of comment time.

Ann Ravel, counsel for the committee, replied that the committee was within its rights. "Under what section?" demanded Drummond, offering to read the law. The committee declined his offer and politely asked him to sit down so the meeting could move forward.

These confrontational tactics have created a fearful atmosphere in the homey Gilroy library.

"Their followers go beyond what I consider acceptable behavior in the library," Yoshimura says, citing a series of events related to the issue. Patrons have called librarians pornographers. People have turned off computers while others are on line. And some patrons have stood behind people accessing the Web and watched them move from site to site.

Though the district attorney threw out the charge that Zappa and Drummond tried to bring against the librarians, the threat of arrest is still very real.

According to Karyn Sinunu, the assistant district attorney who handled the first case, if children view pornography on library computers, and the librarian is aware of it, "that is a different ballgame."

"I will prosecute anyone who gives pornography to children," Sinunu says.

These threats have taken their toll, Yoshimura says. "The staff is visibly shaken and fearful. You don't know when someone comes in if they are trying to set you up. You have to be careful."

Drummond is unconcerned about the impact that the threat of arrest has had on the library staff. "I don't care [about the librarians]," he says. "I am interested in children being able to go into the library without being confronted by obscene material."

Drummond's sentiment is echoed by the Reverend Eric Smith, who founded the South Valley Community Church 12 years ago. Smith says he is angered by the fact that his tax dollars pay for access that could allow a minor to view pornography. "This is a catastrophic injustice," he says, his voice rising with emotion.

Smith's fervor has led his church into political battles for years. The 1,000-member church has fought against an adult bookstore that wanted to locate in Gilroy, and last year tried to halt the implementation of a domestic-partners initiative that would have extended recognition to unmarried couples.

Though Smith provides advice to Zappa and others who are trying to change the library's policy, he insists that these individuals are independent of the church. Nevertheless, he has moved to the center of the controversy.

Sandi Zappa
Netting Suspects: Sandi Zappa says Santa Clara County libraries are getting away with criminal activity that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

Photo by Jim Rendon



Holy War

SMITH HAS LITTLE FAITH that presenting information to various library committees will change anything. "If I were in charge, I would cut to the chase." For Smith that means taking the issue to court.

At last week's meeting Smith indicated that the muscle of his church may be behind this movement, saying, "This could lead to protests in front of the library and litigation."

Ann Ravel, the attorney who represents the county library system, welcomes Smith's challenge.

"It would be a great thing to have this issue decided by the courts," she says.

Ravel contends that the library is not breaking any law. She points out that individuals make their own choices of what sites to view on the Internet.

"The library's purpose by history and law is to provide open access to information for all people regardless of who they are," Ravel says. "The library is a free forum for the exchange of ideas. The right of free speech is pre-eminent. The access to ideas is protected by the First Amendment."

Susan Fuller, director of the county library system, is a strong advocate for the library's policy of open access.

"What we are talking about is the definition of a public library. It is a public forum, a contract between the obligations of the library to provide broad access to information and the individual to know how to use that information."

Supporters of the library's policy say it is every citizen's responsibility to make up his or her own mind about what to view and what not to view, and that it's a parent's responsibility to ensure that children view only appropriate material.

"It is based on trust and good judgment," Yoshimura says. "People are more responsible when they think freedom is not just freedom, but responsibility."

Zappa and others do not trust that kind of responsibility. Instead, they advocate the use of SafeSurf, an Internet filtering software.

SafeSurf's Version 2, which will be out by the end of the month, filters material according to self-ratings on Web sites and keyword searches, as well as filtering databases of Web addresses.

While this software approaches the problem from more angles than most, critics say it is still far from perfect. Many filtering programs screen out, for example, all information that mentions the word "breast"--including information about breast cancer. Simpson's software looks for combinations of words like "breast" and "cancer," allowing those sites to get through.

Simpson admits that her software screens out some material that should not be filtered. And while some universities and school libraries use SafeSurf, not one public library is using it.

Because filters often block information that is protected by the First Amendment, public libraries have shied away from them.

Techno-Censors

'THE technology is not at the point where it will work for a facility open to the general public," Yoshimura says. "It locks too many things out, and if it fails, we have not kept our promise [to block out pornography]."

SafeSurf allows librarians to lock and unlock Web sites. But Yoshimura is very uncomfortable with putting that responsibility in the hands of librarians.

"The librarian is in the position of deciding if material is appropriate for a child," she says. "We don't know a child's age level or value system. They need parental guidance and input."

In response to concerns about children accidentally seeing what others are viewing online, the Gilroy library has installed polarizing screens on monitors that make it hard to see the screen except from directly in front of a monitor. Computers with Internet access have been moved to allow more privacy, and the terminal in the children's room has a hood on it that makes it very hard for others to see what the user is looking at.

Oddly enough, all this precaution is going to isolate and perhaps stigmatize children who look mostly at the Disney Web page, and adults who are primarily doing job searches.

For now, the issue is in limbo. The library's advisory committee, which met last week, has not passed a recommendation along to the Joint Powers Authority on the issue yet. Instead, they have tabled the issue so they can get up to speed on the technology and examine some options in depth. The Joint Powers Authority will address the issue at its fall meeting.

But until the JPA comes to a decision that is acceptable to Smith and others opposed to the library's policy, they will continue to apply pressure.

"We will challenge this indefinitely," Smith vows, "whether it takes six months or one year or two or three."

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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