Wisconsin’s Fine for Porn in the Library


A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.
Jo Goodwin

I don’t mean to always harp on issues of censorship, but it’s just something that rubs me the wrong way. I recently saw a post go through on Facebook the California Libraries page concerning a decision in Wisconsin to support a ban on the viewing of pornography. I can’t link directly to the FB page, but here is a link to the Wisconsin decision. I was more than a little uncomfortable with the reactions of some librarians who were in support of the censoring since some of them were saying this decision was “inspirational” or “THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN SAYING FOR YEARS [sic]” (please go to the Facebook California Libraries page to see the original quotes).

The one that really disturbs me here is the quote from a person saying, “I’m happy that it wasn’t a case about the content, as much as a case about whether it was disruptive.” I just don’t think people have thought through the ramifications of this case, and here’s my argument for this (I am going to give a warning here and say I am going to use a Slippery Slope argument, but we are discussing the ability for people to argue laws in the end and this could be used for fodder later for another case).

I want to point out page four of the Wisconsin decision, for what I take so much issues with, which says:

‘Disorderly conduct in the context of this case means “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which the conduct tends to cause or provoke a disturbance, in university buildings or on university lands.’ WIS.ADMIN.CODE §UWS 18.11(2); see also WIS.STAT.§947.01(1). The State need not prove that an actual disturbance resulted from Reidinger’s conduct, only that the conduct was of a type that tended to cause or provoke a disturbance (page 4) [my emphasis, not theirs].

I have argued a few times in other forums that while I do not love the idea of people viewing pornography or violent death photos in the public areas of the library, we should not be attacking, fining, or suing people for accessing such materials. Rather, we should be establishing policy on physical conduct and then providing privacy screens and headphones for users who may be viewing or reading sensitive materials. What really bothers me here is the court’s opinion that the State does not need to show how a person has made an actual disturbance. We could press the issue in this case by applying this ruling to music as well since The Beatles were able to create such a sensation when coming to the United States that the crowd was riotous. We could also say the same thing about Rite of Spring.

Bigger still is the amount of intellectual freedom that may be stymied by this decision. Take for instance a situation where a medical student is viewing materials displaying the human body. These images or videos have been known to cause disturbance. What about a clinical psych student who is viewing something emotionally uncomfortable or sexual in nature? The areas of study exist.

Libraries need to be making an effort to create policy that attends to both the comfort of non-viewers as well as those who wish to or need to view material of an uncomfortable nature. With the absence of physical excitement, there is little that can be viewed as offensive if a privacy screen and headphones is being used in an academic library or adult section of a library.

The fact that librarians and libraries have not problem solved these issues better almost offends me. The fact we have librarians supporting censure of materials because THEY feel uncomfortable offends me. We work in a field that will cause offense. To not recognize this would be to fall in line with those who seek to destroy art because a shoulder is shown or because it presents nudes or gods not your own.