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US librarians battle Net porn access

In a new twist in the fight against mandatory Web filtering, a federal agency has issued a preliminary finding that library visitors may create a hostile environment for library employees by downloading Internet porn.

In a new twist in the fight against mandatory Web filtering, a federal agency has issued a preliminary finding that library visitors may create a hostile environment for library employees by downloading Internet porn.

The narrow, preliminary ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was issued last week after 12 public librarians in Minneapolis filed a complaint saying that library visitors were downloading porn, including bestiality and child molestation, and leaving it for librarians and patrons to see. The finding said that the library "did subject the charging party to (a) sexually hostile work environment."

The ruling does not have wide-ranging effects on all libraries, but it clears the way for Minneapolis librarians to pursue legal battles against the Minnesota Public Library. The EEOC is urging settlement discussions between the two sides.

The issue of whether libraries must filter Web content has been on the front burner for both lawmakers and free-speech advocates for years as the Web has opened more channels for people to transmit and receive Internet porn. The EEOC finding adds a new dimension to the debate by pitting legal employment protections against free-speech rights.

In December, Congress passed a law requiring schools and libraries that receive federal funds to filter out content inappropriate for minors or risk losing the money. However, the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged the law in federal court, saying it violates free-speech rights by, among other things, restricting content for adults.

ALA spokeswoman Larra Clark said it's too soon to tell how, or whether, the finding would affect the case against the filtering bill.

"We're still kind of waiting and watching to see what's out there information-wise," Clark said.

Still, she doesn't think the finding will adversely influence the case, partly because it's so narrow and preliminary. Also, the one-and-half-page ruling does not explain how the EEOC reached the decision.

"Clearly there are librarians who disagree with our position on filters," Clark said. "I wouldn't say it's the norm or the standard." Only 25 percent of libraries use filters, according to the ALA.

Legal experts also say the finding should have little bearing on the free-speech fight.

Although the EEOC can issue guidelines about behavior in the workplace, courts don't have any problem setting them aside during legal proceedings, Rutgers University Law Professor Alan Hyde said. However, in cases of sexual harassment, the courts seem to give more weight to EEOC positions, he said.

If this case or a similar one were to result in some final EEOC guideline on Web filtering, it could apply to all workplaces, Hyde added. In recent years, many companies have taken the initiative and fired workers after they downloaded porn.

Nevertheless, Hyde said the mere existence of porn in the workplace has not been enough to prove a hostile work environment. The porn must be coupled with more traditional forms of harassment, such as unwanted comments or gender-based barriers to performing certain jobs.

"Popular culture has had it that the display of porn alone is a reason for sexual harassment, but there's never been such a legal case, ever," he said.