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Protecting kids from porn? Assaulting free speech? Library critics take aim at public databases.

Colorado parents’ lawsuit and conservative group claiming to defend “virtue and freedom” claim national information provider made online porn available to kids -- deliberately

James Duncan, executive director of Colorado Library Consortium, accesses one of the many library databases that activists say purposely push porn to kids. Duncan says the allegation is not true, noting it is important for libraries and librarians to stand up for truth. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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It’s a strange time to be a librarian in Colorado.

Long accustomed to having their workplaces written off as musty-smelling anachronisms, a growing number of librarians lately find themselves under scrutiny, or attack.

Across the state, and beyond, librarians have been accused of purposely peddling online porn to kids. And at the Colorado Capitol this year, libraries and those who run them were the focus of two separate bills — which may be an unprecedented volume of library-related legislation in a single session.

Depending on which side of the circulation desk you’re standing on, it’s all part of a sincere effort to protect children from harm, or a frontal assault on freedom of speech. However you look at it, the divide is growing. And, “it’s had a chilling effect” on libraries, said James Duncan, executive director of Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC).

Databases in the crosshairs

At the center of the controversy is Massachusetts-based EBSCO Inc., which provides civic and school libraries collections of information and research resources, including journals, magazines and other print and online publications. It was at EBSCO that the first salvo in this new culture war was fired, more than two years ago, when an Aurora couple discovered that seemingly innocuous searches within EBSCO’s materials provided to their daughter’s middle school library turned up hard-core pornography.

After months of wrangling with Cherry Creek School District, those parents, Drew and Robin Paterson, filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts-based company in October. The lawsuit attracted national attention, and the legal services of the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that has made a national name for itself by battling against abortion.

In the lawsuit, the Patersons and their attorneys didn’t allege EBSCO was carelessly allowing obscene material to slip through. They charged the company was deliberately promulgating porn.

EBSCO rejects the charge. In a prepared statement, the company acknowledged that as a result of “this lawsuit and other threats to library content” it has “implement[ed] policy and process improvements” to better filter objectionable content.

Despite the marquee legal assistance, the lawsuit was dismissed in late February. Although the dismissal stipulates it cannot be refiled, Thomas More senior counsel Matt Heffron has said, “EBSCO claims to be in 55,000 schools . . . We’re just getting started.”

A computer used in one of the many metro Denver libraries, where patrons can access databases of research resources, including journals, magazines and other print and online publications. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In addition to EBSCO, the suit also named as a defendant CLiC, a statewide agency that negotiates contracts with providers like EBSCO on behalf of multiple libraries – seeking to save money through volume. The plaintiffs charged CLiC was complicit in delivering porn to students.

But Duncan personally drew the wrath of EBSCO critics when he posted a guide on CLiC’s website designed to help librarians defend themselves against claims of porn in online subscriptions. In that guide, Duncan called the challenges, “a modern-day book burning crusade.”

Whatever you call it, the effort has led some 156 schools to cut ties with EBSCO, Duncan said.

The accusations have spread to Indiana and Utah, where parent uproar over alleged obscene content led briefly to a statewide ban on the company’s content in all public libraries. For the second year, EBSCO has made the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s Dirty Dozen List of the “top contributors to sexual exploitation in America.” EBSCO joined Amazon, Netflix, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and United Airlines on that list. And the issue makes headlines on the website of Mass Resistance, a group that describes itself as a “pro-family activist organization.”

Activists claim “homework help” leads to hard-core porn

And it’s caused uncomfortable moments in Lamar City Council meetings.

In that town on Colorado’s southeastern plains, a local group called Heritage Defenders is waging a crusade to protect children from what they call easily accessed hard-core porn, gay porn, ads for sex toys and a laundry list of offensive content they say kids can reach through EBSCO’s “homework help” tab. According to its website, Heritage Defenders, which works with national groups including Heritage Foundation and Mass Resistance, says its mission is to “defend the Constitution and to guard virtue and freedom as one nation under God.”

“I put in ‘unicorn’ into the middle school homework help and the third [search result item] was ‘unicorn vibrator,’” said Lamar resident and Heritage Defenders leader Belinda Groner.

Like the authors of the lawsuit, Groner believes pornography is planted deliberately, in a conspiracy that includes EBSCO, CLiC, and the American Library Association. “The ALA in 1974 started pushing a gay agenda,” she said. The motive, she said, is money — “porn is a billion-dollar industry” — along with a desire among liberals, gays and Muslims to “indoctrinate children that bad sexual behavior is OK.”

In acrimonious meetings and home-published newsletters distributed throughout Lamar, Heritage Defenders called out city librarian Sue Lathrop for letting this happen, urged the city council to stop it, and demanded a change in how library advisory board members are chosen.

Lathrop said library staff have worked with EBSCO to strengthen filters and she combs the databases each month, scrubbing out anything that a majority would consider obscene. She said she suspects that parents who use EBSCO’s “homework help” feature at home are able to click on live links that might lead to sites with adult material. At the library, however, those links are not live.

“There is no porn in any of these databases,” Lathrop said. “There are things that are not age appropriate for kids, but there is no pornography.”

Interest in library boards heats up

Heritage Defenders aren’t the only ones trying to change how library boards are chosen.

Rep. Kimmi Lewis, an Eastern Plains Republican, introduced legislation this year that would have allowed voters to decide whether library board members should be appointed or elected.

And, state Sen. Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, introduced legislation requiring any provider of electronically accessible educational materials to filter those materials “to exclude material that is harmful to children or obscene.” The bill also stipulated that any companies that did not provide those filters could be fined or sued.

Both efforts failed. A spokeswoman for Holbert said the senator isn’t yet announcing whether he will try again in the future to require filters. She referred further questions to the Heritage Defenders’ Groner who, she said, brought the matter to the senator’s attention.

All of which may explain why, when Douglas County’s commissioners recommended controversial former Douglas County School Board President Meghann Silverthorn be appointed to the library board, it aroused suspicion. Silverthorn was part of a school board that advocated initiatives such as teacher pay-for-performance and a voucher program that would have allowed taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at religious schools. The appointment of Silverthorn and the ouster of novelist Eleanor Brown from the board in February brought residents to the normally quiet installation ceremony to protest what they feared was an orchestrated move to tilt the board in a conservative direction.

Douglas County Libraries Executive Director Robert Pasicznyuk said he was surprised by the political fallout. And he called the notion that there is a plot afoot to skew the board to the right preposterous. “For the life of me, I don’t know of any substantive policy issue I’ve handled in the 20 years I’ve been involved in libraries that skewed left or right.” He said he had difficulty believing that those who lean left really want to put porn in front of children, or that those on the right are interested in limiting free access to information.

“We’ve made no changes in the way we deal with these [online] products because we don’t think there is anything to the allegation that these are anything but research tools,” he said.

But a number of parents and conservative activists don’t agree, and they have pledged to continue efforts to protect children from what they believe to be dangerous and damaging exposure to porn.

Librarians stand up for facts

James Duncan, executive director of Colorado Library Consortium, in one of the many metro Denver libraries where databases can be accessed by patrons on April 1, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

And library leaders have vowed to fight the efforts. “We value freedom of speech, and libraries will always stand up and celebrate individuals who say what they want to say. But it’s also important for libraries and librarians to stand up and refute undocumented opinions with facts,” said Duncan, who in March received the American Library Association’s Immroth Award, which recognizes notable contributions to the defense of intellectual freedom.

Duncan doesn’t see the challenges waning any time soon.

Lathrop agrees. “I am worried that it will happen in other places. We want to make sure kids are safe, but it’s a public library. We have to protect everyone’s rights.”

Groner, a self-employed business consultant, argues that she and her group are not trying to trample anyone’s First Amendment rights. “True censorship would be if we were trying to keep everybody from accessing it. We’re just trying to get a subscribed database, paid for by taxpayers, to stop trying to sell sex toys to minors.

“This is what taxpayers are paying for,” Groner said. “We’ve got to stop it.”


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