When a group of Virginians sued the Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Public Library in late December, challenging the restrictions it places on Internet usage, the press covered the case as a conflict between censorship and free speech. Here's the rest of the story.
The board had required libraries that offer Internet access to install software intended to block adult-oriented Web sites, which is what prompted the lawsuit. But more interesting is the board's justification for that policy. It wasn't exercising discretion to shield children. It was protecting its staff and patrons from "sexual harassment."
"Library pornography can create a sexually hostile environment for patrons and staff," states the second line of the board's "Policy on Internet Sexual Harassment," which it adopted in late October. "Permitting pornographic displays may constitute unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act."
That's right. The statute that was used to ban pinups from shipyards and Goya's Naked Maja from Penn State University is now being used to ban portions of the Internet from public libraries.
Eugene Volokh, who teaches constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and has published widely on the threat Title VII poses to free speech, says this development is not surprising. Volokh maintains that Title VII has become a nationwide speech code through which the government punishes politically incorrect statements by people in private institutions. Every place is somebody's workplace, says Volokh. So if the government claims the authority to restrict pornography where welders toil, it should be no surprise that it claims that same power over the places librarians work.
"The intellectual left is eager to restrict bigoted speech in shipyards because they intuitively believe that the shipworkers' speech is of no constitutional value,'" Volokh says. "But you transfer that [power] to the library and people who go to libraries, and all of a sudden they see constitutional problems with restricting speech."