Vineyard Haven Library wrestles with Internet use challenges

The Vineyard Haven Library computer use policy prohibits the display of materials that "create an intimidating or sexually offensive environment in the library." — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A Vineyard Haven Public Library (VHPL) patron failed to appear at December 19 meeting of the board of trustees to appeal the board’s decision to suspend his computer privileges for six months for violating the library’s technology policies

The library board decision on November 28 followed a report by library director Amy Ryan that the man violated the library’s rules for computer use, “which prohibit the display of materials determined by the staff to create an intimidating or sexually offensive environment in the library.”

The man had received an earlier verbal warning and a written copy of the rules for failing to comply with library policies, on March 12, 2010, according to the letter.

The incident highlights some of the challenges libraries face in offering free and open access to Internet use. Years ago, libraries were considered quiet refuges for readers of books, magazines, and newspapers. The Internet has changed all that.

The rules for computer use are included in the Vineyard Haven library’s technology policy. “Unacceptable use may result in suspension of access privileges to the computers, exclusion from the library, and possible prosecution,” the rules state. “Viewing content not protected by the First Amendment of the US. Constitution (obscenity or child pornography) or displaying this illegal content,” is listed among “specific unacceptable uses.”

The language in Vineyard Haven’s technology policy mirrors policies in effect at other libraries that include the Boston Public Library and Falmouth Public Library. All three libraries state in their policies that while they recognize the Internet as a valuable resource, they do not monitor or control information accessed through it and are not responsible for its content.

That is not to say that patrons are free to view illegal content. The VHPL rules, for example, state that “Use of the library computers and network in a way that violates local, state or federal laws is expressly prohibited.”

Internet use at the Boston Public Library is governed by a patron behavior policy, similar to Vineyard Haven’s rules of conduct. The Boston Public Library’s policy states that it complies with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires the use of filtering software for adults, defined by law as over the age of 17, teens, and children. The policy also says that patrons must not “display images, sounds or messages in a way that will negatively affect those who find them objectionable or offensive.”

The Oak Bluffs Library and West Tisbury Free Public Library have their computer use policies available on their websites. The Edgartown Library does not. The Chilmark Free Public Library’s website says its computer user policy is available from staff.

Asked if there have been other incidents involving inappropriate material viewed on the library’s computers, Ms. Ryan said the board has not taken action against any other patron since she joined the library staff in 2008.

“Some patron privileges are occasionally suspended for a variety of reasons, such as accruing excessive overdue fees or failure to return borrowed materials,” Ms. Ryan noted.

When asked how the staff could enforce someone’s suspension if he or she attempts to use a computer without privileges, Ms. Ryan said, “The library computers are equipped with management software that can be used to end a patron session.”

Oak Bluffs Library acting director Sondra Murphy said in a phone conversation with The Times on Friday that she and her staff have not had any incidents similar to what occurred in Vineyard Haven. However, in light of what happened in Vineyard Haven, she said she and the library board plan to review their policies.

Quiet please

Years ago, libraries were considered quiet refuges for readers of books, magazines and newspapers. A quick glance from a librarian was often all that was needed to maintain decorum.

The library’s rules of conduct warn that the library staff will apply all local ordinances and state laws which govern behavior in public places, “…and will call the Police Department to enforce these laws and regulations when necessary.”

On November 20, a library staff member alerted by a patron went to speak to the man using the computer. Ms. Ryan told selectmen the man spoke to the staff member “in a degrading and profane manner, which was offensive to surrounding patrons,” library director Amy Ryan said in a letter to selectmen.

The library staff did not immediately report the November 20 incident to Tisbury Police. In an email response to a question from The Times, Ms. Ryan said, “The library administration feels the actions taken were appropriate for the circumstances.”

Tisbury Police Chief Dan Hanavan told The Times that the library staff informed him about the November 20 incident after it happened and that the staff knows they can call upon his department if they want assistance.

Privacy protected

Town and library officials have refused to name the offending patron. In response to an informal public records request, interim town administrator Aase Jones provided The Times with a redacted copy of the letter dated November 29 from Ms. Ryan informing the patron of his suspension and rights of appeal.

Ms. Jones said the name was redacted based on the advice of town lawyer David Doneski of Kopelman and Paige.

The Massachusetts Public Records Law states that every record made or received by a government entity is presumed to be a public record, unless it is subject to one of 15 statutory exemptions.

In a formal request to Ms. Jones, The Times requested a copy of Ms. Ryan’s November 29 letter, without the name removed, or asked that she cite the specific exemption under which the town refused to make that information public.

In a telephone conversation on December 18, with Times managing editor Nelson Sigelman, Mr. Doneski cited the privacy exemption and said the identity of the patron would likely be a moot point following the hearing on December 19.

Mr. Sigelman said that the issue was not the person’s identity but whether the town correctly fulfilled its obligation to respond to a public records request.

According to the Secretary of State’s Guide to the Public Records Law, “The privacy exemption is most frequently invoked. The language of the exemption limits its application to: personnel and medical files or information; also any other materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The guide states that the privacy exemption is limited to “intimate details of a highly personal nature,” for example: marital status, paternity, substance abuse, government assistance, family disputes and reputation.

The question to be answered, according to the Office of the Secretary of State, is “whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the privacy interest associated with disclosure of the highly personal information.”

The Times has asked Mr. Doneski to provide a formal denial of its request with reference to the privacy clause.