By Matt Gergyek
Visitors to the Ottawa Public Library’s Main branch on Metcalfe Street will no longer be able to use library computers to view pornographic material or other explicit content “that may reasonably be considered offensive to others.”
But the new policy is raising concerns, on one hand, that it could infringe basic rights and freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter. Others have argued that the library has clumsily drafted a policy that will still allow porn to be publicly viewed in certain circumstances.
Previously, the city-wide policy required that library staff direct offending visitors to a more discreet area of the building if they intended to continue viewing explicit content. But the new procedure will require staff to instruct offenders to shut down or turn off any material — if it has prompted a complaint from another library patron.
Failure to follow a staff member’s instructions will result in the offending individual’s removal from the library.
The approach will be complaint-based and computer activity will be unmonitored by library staff.
A similar approach is used in public libraries in Vancouver, Gatineau and Hamilton, among other cities.
Bill Kay, a Centretown resident who visits the Metcalfe Street library for computer access “four to five times a week” said he largely agrees with the new approach.
“It’s a subjective thing … Personally, I really don’t think (pornographic material) should be allowed in a library,” Kay said.
The policy change followed a storm of criticism that hit the library in July after Ottawa resident Jennifer St. Pierre and her two young daughters stumbled upon a visitor to the Greenboro branch watching “graphic porn,” St. Pierre told CBC Ottawa. They were told that under current policies, the offender was not in the wrong.
The main section for public computer terminals at the Main library branch is on the same floor as the children’s library.
Library spokesperson Anna Basile said in an email exchange that the “changes in policy and practice will be designed to respond to external factors such as the increasing availability of content on the Internet, the evolving role of public libraries, and the need to balance individual rights in the context of our library branches as public spaces.”
But the new procedure is raising some concern with regard to freedom of information and expression for some members.
“The issue gets difficult when you bring religious people into the debate, who have an even more subjective view of what’s proper and improper,” argued Kay.
Sherri Beattie, an Ottawa-based criminal lawyer and media law professor at Carleton University, said the library may not have taken the right approach to the issue of explicit content.
“It is clearly a radical departure from the initial policy … making individuals (on staff) wander around the library and play the role of censurer and police officer.”
She asked: “Is the (OPL) going to use the criminal law to enforce this policy? Is someone going to call the police and have individuals charged with something like indecency or mischief?”
Rob De Luca, director of the public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said technically, a Charter challenge could be brought against the library for infringing of patrons’ freedoms, but added that such a challenge would would be complicated and limited.
“Presumably the policy is meant to protect vulnerable members of the public, such as children,” De Luca said, and “courts have recognized this as a pressing and substantial government objective.”
“The main issue with the (new) policy is that the old system … was less impairing of freedom of expression, and may have still achieved this basic objective.”
De Luca also described the practical difficulties in applying the OPL’s new policy.
“It is hard to determine what is explicit,” he said, noting that “people disagree” on what constitutes offensive or extreme material and that, “allowing ‘reasonable’ complaints to dictate what is accessible … will often be arbitrary and overbroad in application.”
Computers and Wi-Fi in the library are free to use and only require a basic membership for access. It is still unclear how the updated protocol will affect the use of personal devices on the library’s Wi-Fi network.
“Libraries are community hubs and our customers matter to us,” said Basile. “We want them to be comfortable in our spaces.”