RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Pornography, Public Computers, & Library Policy - 11/14/2018
Pornography and public computers in libraries have gone hand-in-hand for some time and I'...
Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2018 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Pornography and public computers in libraries have gone hand-in-hand for some time and I'm doing some research on how library policies should handle addressing this in a realistic and proactive way. The question that I am researching is whether or not it is legal to explicitly list pornography as something that cannot be accessed on library computers. I understand ALA and the Intellectual Freedom Committees stance on this issue as well as the first amendment ramifications and I am certainly not advocating for censorship, however, I've seen several policies that have tried to circumvent the issue by having vague, unhelpful policies and others that have flat out said that it is not allowed. Any clarifying help from a legal standpoint would be appreciated. 

My understanding is that it would not be constitutional to have a policy restricting pornography, however, there could be something in the policy that restricts the displaying of pornography or other offensive content. 

Thank you.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Because libraries are guardians of the first amendment, and because there is no consistent definition of “pornography,” the answer is: NO. I cannot offer legal guidance that simply bans porn…any more than I could suggest that a public library start charging admission.  Such guidance would cut into the fundamental heart of a library’s mission. 

But there is a way to achieve your underlying objective:  Focus on civil rights.

How does a “focus on civil rights” keep porn off library computers, you ask?

Let’s start with the fundamentals: why would a library would need to consider limiting internet porn in the first place?  The answer is pretty simple.  Aside from the malware—and the abysmal amount of copyright theft perpetrated by many porn sites--[1] no one wants to work or congregate in a place where other people are watching porn.

At best, it’s icky.  At worst, it creates an atmosphere of gender-based discrimination (of any gender…of any sexual orientation…and of those who do not gender-identify, too).  So in New York, where the stakes for a sexual harassment claim have never been higher[2], providing a porn-free environment is an unquestioned goal at most places of employment[3]…including libraries.

And so the true question here is not if a library can outright restrict access to internet pornography, but rather, how can a library make sure it’s not honoring one civil right at the expense of another?   How does a library remain a beacon for the first amendment, but stand as  a bulwark of equal access and fair treatment, too?

This balance can be achieved.  The key, just like in other matters involving fundamental rights, is to have a clear, well-developed policy, applied by trained professionals, well-documented and guiding you every step of the way. 

Every library policy should be customized for its unique environment (and harmonized with other policies), but here is a quick example of the type of document I describe, designed to fit into a library code of conduct, patron access agreement, or other behavior-related policy:

The[INSERT NAME] library absolutely respects users’ rights to reliably and confidentially access content, but also has a duty to ensure that its shared community space is free of behavior that demeans, intimidates, or discriminates against patrons, other visitors, and employees.

Therefore, to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal civil rights laws, anyone using or displaying library resources in a manner that creates an atmosphere that could harass, sexually harass, or discriminate against others may be asked to modify their behavior. 

Examples that may require staff to ask you to modify behavior include, but are not limited to:

  • Prominently displaying content featuring racial, gender-based, or religious invective or insults;
  • Prominently displaying scenes of violence;
  • Prominently displaying sexual content;
  • Printing and/or prominently displaying materials in way that appears to target others.

Any request for modification, action or determination under this policy will place the highest priority on the right of patrons to access content, and will seek ways to address the concern without restricting that access.  Modification could include:

  • Agreeing to move the material on another table at a less trafficked area;
  • Scheduling use of a shared resource to ensure predictability of display;
  • Collaborating on a solution that ensures optimal access to content as well as a safe and respectful environment for all.

In some cases, however, “modification” may simply mean a request to discontinue the behavior.  Examples include but are not limited to: deliberately leaving images of violence in a children’s area; prominently displaying sexually graphic content in full view of other patrons and employees; any activity that uses content to negatively target another person in the library.

Patrons who refuse to modify their behavior or to collaboratively resolve a concern may be found in violation of the library’s Code of Conduct and subject to restriction of privileges, per library policy.

Prominently displaying” means the content is intentionally or incidentally visible to others, risking a hostile atmosphere. 

By focusing not on the restriction of “pornography,” but on the creation of a respectful and welcoming environment for all, a library positions itself to ensure optimal access to content, but to follow state, local, and federal civil rights laws, too.  And since one person’s anatomy textbook is another person’s porn, a policy that allows for proactive solutions, using incremental and creative adjustment, helps balance liberty with a respectful environment.

What part of first amendment jurisprudence allows this? The first amendment does prohibit the government from abridging the freedom of speech.  However, it does not guarantee that all forms of protected speech may be heard on property owned or controlled by the government. Instead, the state (just like an owner of private owner property), has “power to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated.”  Further, as in any case “where the principal function of the property would be disrupted by expressive activity,” courts will not consider the main reading and reference area of a public library to be public forum where expression cannot be regulated.[4]

Here is an example: let’s say I am working on book about inter-generational trauma.  With only the best of intentions (writing a book exploring how the trauma of one generation can impact the next) I claim a table for myself near the reference desk, and start laying out books with pictures from the Jim Crow era.  At the next table over, a young person sees the pictures, and suddenly finds the library is not the warm, happy place it was ten minutes ago.  She gets very emotional, and the reference librarian notices.  Using the policy, the librarian could then say: “I see you are working on an important project.  Since this is a high-traffic area and these are some very stark imagines, can you consider moving to a table where you can access the material, but not risk a negative impact on others?  That would help us serve you while also making sure the reference area is welcoming to all.” 

If I say “yes,” and move, we all move on.  If I say “no,” there may be a need for further discussion, but under the library’s policies, one way or another, an adjustment is made.

How could this work with a patron accessing porn on a public computer?  The librarian states:  “This is a public area[5] that serves many people, and its environment must be respectful of our visitors and employees.  What you are viewing is not consistent with that requirement, so it cannot be displayed is this area.  Please stop now.” 

If I say “yes,” and move, we all move on.  If I say “no,” there isn’t much need for further discussion, since under the library’s policies, one way or another, an adjustment will be made.

This is what is called in first amendment jurisprudence a “time, place, and manner” restriction.  Considering the mission of the library—to serve all—a policy of keeping the common areas free of graphic violence, invective, and sexually explicit content is very reasonable…especially since most parts of a library are not considered a “public forum.”  It is the same restriction that allows librarians to ask people to speak quietly or not play music on their cell phones that others can hear.

I appreciate that this approach does require library staff to make and enforce value judgments about content—and some librarians may feel uneasy about that role.  But the essential function of libraries rests on the ability of librarians to make content-based decisions.  In fact, because they are trained to categorize and assess various types of information, librarians are some of the best-qualified people in the world to take such a burden on. 

The case Sund v. City of Wichita Falls—also called the “Heather Has Two Mommies” case—shows the importance of qualified professionals making content decisions using consistently applied, well-reasoned policy.[6]  In that case, a town board tried to allow patrons to over-ride a head librarian’s decision as to where to shelve a children’s book depicting a positive, happy tale of a girl and her two mothers.  When striking down the law, the judged cited the library’s careful accession policy and the level of training required of the librarian—and then confirmed that she had the final say in shelving decisions. 

Librarians use such content discernment on a routine basis, and today’s civil rights laws demand they apply it to not only collections, but the library’s environment, as well.  A policy that is well-developed, harmonized with other policies, and the subject of routine training and practice for staff can give this responsibility a reliable formula.  Like all critical policies, such a policy should be custom-drafted and carefully considered before being approved by trustees, since if the resulting discernment is ever challenged, the board will need to stand by—or overrule—how it was applied in the field.

Balancing conflicting civil liberties requires careful analysis and diplomacy.  But at the end of the day—I’m just gonna say this—unless they work in a very unique type of place, librarians have the right to expect a workplace largely free from internet porn.[7]  That freedom—and the freedom of patrons to access content without undue restriction—starts with your library’s commitment to civil rights.

Thank you for this important question.



[1] The only reason I know this is because I am a copyright attorney.  No, really.

[2] See the new laws passed in 2018 about increased employer liability for sexual harassment.

[3] Obviously the sound editor at an erotic film production company hopes for a steady stream of work, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

[4] See the case Citizens for Cmty Values, Inc. v. Upper Arlington Public Library Board of Trustees, 2008 U.S. Dist LEXIS 85439 (2008), United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

[5] I have no pre-emptive solution for people who bring their own laptops and are able to reserve a room, unless you have a policy that employees may enter such a room at any time, in which case my same advice applies.

[6] This case is a good read for any librarian seeking a refresher on the important of clear policy and a supportive board of trustees.  It is also very laudatory of the librarian who fought for the right of the library to properly shelve the book.

[7]I am not a judge, so I get to have a definition!  Here is it:  “Anything on the internet depicting a sex act, that comes with at least two pop-up adds.”

Tags: Policy, Sexual Harassment

Topic: Sexual Harassment Training - 9/26/2018
Beginning on October 9, employers in NYS are required to make interactive training which meets sta...
Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2018 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Beginning on October 9, employers in NYS are required to make interactive training which meets state outlined minimum standards to their employees to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. As a cooperative public library system which serves a membership of public libraries including those which employ 1-3 staff members, we would like to support our members by providing the training centrally. We have no governing or financial authority over these independent libraries. Their employees are not our employees.

Can we provide training centrally for the employees of member libraries, as long as the training itself meets the minimum training standards?

Do different levels of employees need to be provided with different training sessions, for instance do library staff persons need to be provided a training space free of the library director?

Do trustees serving on library (or any non-profit) board need to participate in this training and if so, do they need their own session?

It is my understanding that training can only be shared if all the institutions have agreed to the state version of the policy AND been given the state created training module. Is that true?

Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

The member is right: New York State has taken the huge step of requiring ALL employers—whether  they employ one, or one thousand—to train their people to recognize and report sexual harassment and illegal retaliation.

But this training requirement does not stand alone.  Also as part of the amped-up law:

  • All employers must have a sexual harassment policy meeting new content requirements.
  • All employers must have a sexual harassment reporting form meeting new content requirements.
  • All new employees must be trained about the sexual harassment policy within 30 days.
  • Liability now extends to complaints by independent contractors and “gig” workers[1].
  • Sexual Harassment claims cannot be resolved via mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure clauses (with some exceptions).

The resulting need to revise policies, adopt reporting forms, and organize trainings has hit many strategic plans and budgets hard.[2]  Libraries, who always feel budget pressure, are among the not-for-profits feeling the pinch.

Since this law passed along with the budget this spring, I have been counselling clients that this training requirement should not be viewed as simply another unfunded mandate (although it is), but an opportunity.  What kind of opportunity? An opportunity for library leadership to gather and train their valued people to recognize and reject discriminatory behavior right from the start.

But at the end of the day, no matter how worthy the topic, convening personnel and hiring a qualified trainer costs money.  Which brings us to the member’s great questions (underlined below).

First Question: Can we provide training centrally for the employees of member libraries, as long as the training itself meets the minimum training standards?

My answer to this is…Hold on.  Before we talk about resource-sharing, let’s talk about scope:

Trustees, interns, and volunteers should be part of this training.  [3]

Why trustees? When a small institution has a concern related to sexual harassment, trustees become front-line decision-makers.  Further, trustees are generally the “supervisors” of directors—and the new law specifically requires that supervisors be trained.  And finally—but most critically—library trustees set the tone for mission and leadership at the library.  You cannot change or evolve a library’s culture without trustee involvement.

Why interns and volunteers?  This new law comes with liability for harassment directed even at “gig” workers.  This liability can be caused by any person acting on behalf of the library—even a volunteer.  So every person[4] who works at the direction of your institution should know this law, and how to work within it, together.

With that scope of attendance in mind, based on the guidance from the state thus far[5], if the policy and reporting form track the model policies provided by the state: my answer is YES.

 

Second Question: Do different levels of employees need to be provided with different training sessions, for instance do library staff persons need to be provided a training space free of the library director?
NO! In fact, I believe a library would lose much of the value of the sessions if it did so.

Why is that?  While the stark requirement of the policy is to review the law, a side benefit of such a training is creating an esprit de corps for combatting bad behavior together.   That can best happen if each level of authority—from trustee, to supervisor, to employee to intern or volunteer—hears and honors the obligations of the other.[6]

If the different authority levels are balkanized into different trainings, a valuable opportunity to build trust and accountability in service to the library’s mission of equal access is lost.

 

Third Question: Do trustees serving on a library (or any non-profit) board need to participate in this training and if so, do they need their own session?

The new law does not mention training trustees or directors specifically[7].  But since boards generally supervise the Director or Executive Director, and are responsible for a library’s legal compliance in all matters, it is my conclusion that library trustees must be trained. 

And—although my comments above recommend against it—they can be trained separately.[8]

There is a related area, however, where separate training might be appropriate and warranted.  In this day and age, governing boards should know: 1) the library’s insurance coverage for sexual harassment/discrimination claims, 2) the procedure for notifying the insurance carrier of a claim, and 3) how and when to call in third-party investigator to look into a complaint.  Having trustees aware of these things, before a mandatory training under the new law, would be optimal.

 

Fourth Question: It is my understanding that training can only be shared if all the institutions have agreed to the state version of the policy AND been given the state-created training module. Is that true?

Let’s start this answer with what a library is looking for when arranging the required training—a required element of which is a live, in-person trainer that attendees can ask questions of.

What does the library need from this trainer?  At bare minimum, the trainer needs to provide a session that meets the requirements of the law.  Therefore, my guidance to those arranging trainings for a single entity is that the contract or hire letter contain assurance such as:

On [DATE/S], [PROVIDER] will provide [SINGLE INSTITUTION] with an interactive session based on the State of New York’s “Model Sexual Harassment Prevention Training” guidance and [Institution’s] Sexual Harassment Policy and Reporting Form.  When the training is complete, trainer will certify that all elements for sexual harassment trainings required by applicable NYDOL and NYDHR guidance, and the laws of New York, have been met.

For a multi-institution training organized by a membership alliance or network, I suggest that the contract or hire letter contain some extra details, such as:

On [DATE], [Provider] will provide [Institution]’s members with an interactive session based on the State of New York’s “Model Sexual Harassment Prevention Training” guidance and [Institution’s] Sexual Harassment Policy and Reporting Form.  When the training is complete, trainer will certify to each institution that all elements required by applicable NYDOL and NYDHR guidance, and the laws of New York, have been met.

As this is a multi-institutional training, to enable certification for each attending institution, the following practices will be observed:

  • Registration must be complete no more than [one week] before the session.
  • [Institution] must provide trainer with a copy of each participating institution’s sexual harassment policy and reporting forms, no later than [one week] before the session.
  • Each attendee shall register and sign in on a form that notes if they have a supervisory role.
  • When signing in, each attendee shall be given a copy of their institution’s sexual harassment policy and reporting form, and shall sign to acknowledge receipt.
  • When signing in, each attendee shall be given a name tag that notes their institution, and if they are a supervisor.
  • During the training, each attendee shall be addressed by name and given at least one opportunity to role-play or rehearse recognizing or reporting harassment or retaliation.

Attendance is limited to 5 institutions, 60 attendees.[9]

I based this guidance on what will no doubt be the next chapter in this legal saga: allegations of liability due to failure to properly update policies and train personnel. 

The “certification” approach I am suggesting above is not required by the new law.  Rather, it is designed to help your members, or your institution, create a record that will easily demonstrate that they endeavored to follow that law.  It is designed to show that, even if a system or group had to share resources and do a mass training, a truly interactive and meaningful experience was intended.  This is a key element of limiting liability.[10]

 

Conclusion

Of course, in a perfect world, people attend sexual harassment trainings not only to limit liability and because they are compelled to, but to learn how to ensure such behavior is rare, quickly called out, and immediately corrected.

The importance of such training cannot be over-stated.  When I was a 16-year-old page at a public library in the 1990’s, I was harassed by a patron.  I was too young and inexperienced to know my rights, or what to do.  Fortunately, I had the good luck to be on shift with an amazing assistant director[11].   When the bad behavior started, this graceful woman walked over to the patron, and simply said, “This has to stop now.”  And despite his displeasure, it did.[12]

Many decades later, her unambiguous, dignified, and immediate action inspires me, as I hope it does you.

Done right, these mandatory trainings are an opportunity for your library’s team to practice this type of skillful handling.  It is also a chance for supervising staff--who now have the term “mandatory reporter” in their job descriptions—to be assured that they are supported and backed up by informed and committed trustees. 

Finding ways to collaborate and share resources to make such training and practice as accessible and rewarding as possible is a great initiative.  Thank you for this excellent array of questions.



[1] Uber drivers who transport your interlibrary loans, for example.

[2] The State’s late issuance of required guidance—released less than 2 months before the effective date—didn’t help, either.

[3] I know, that’s not really the question.  But this is very, very important.

[4] Yes, some of those volunteers might be very young!  It will be the job of your trainer to train your employees both well, and appropriately.

[5] September 26, 2018. A I write this, they are assessing thousands of public comments—including some submitted by me—and that may change the basis of my advice.  So if you are reading this in 2019, please check for updates.

[6] Just so you know, “my firm belief” is based on years of conducting anti-discrimination trainings, ten years as an in-house counsel at a university, and time as an Interim HR Director.  I am not just going with my gut here.

[7] Nor does the current model policy, report form, or training materials. Considering that New York is a hive of corporations, this void is rather mind-boggling, but these State resources were compiled with haste.  I imagine this will be addressed in later versions.

[9] Or some other reasonable number.  This is just a recommendation.  Basically, you don’t want the number of institutions or attendees to make the “interactive” requirement arguably meaningless.

[10] But by no means the only element.  The most important one will be following the new law, and documenting that you are following it!

[11] Bernice Cosgrove. 

[12] The patron was quite upset.  In retrospect, he may have had some mental health concerns.  These matters often come with complications that require tact, diplomacy, and compassion.

 

Tags: Policy, Sexual Harassment, Trustees

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The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.