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by TIM BROSS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's 2:15 on a gray, wintry Saturday afternoon and the downtown Spokane Public Library is brimming with hushed activity. Children scamper about as moms and dads quietly search the shelves. The place is full of men, women, the young and old, rich and poor, interacting silently and harmoniously -- reading, browsing the Internet, listening to headphones.





Meanwhile, I sit at a desk with a large computer monitor. I'm in the middle of the action as I begin to peruse pornographic images on sites with names like porno-shack.com and worldsex.com. Racy images flash across the screen, with bodies contorted in unimaginable ways. There are reproductive organs of all shapes, sizes and colors. On screen, women smile back at me seductively.





Here I am, with strangers surrounding me, visiting the Websites your mother warned you about, engaging in a brand of Web-surfing normally reserved for the private confines of one's own home. Who knew the public library could be so... stimulating?





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & know it when I see it." Those were the words of Supreme Court Judge Potter Stewart in his opinion regarding the obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). The case dealt with hard-core pornography, and even though the rest of Stewart's opinion read "... and the motion picture involved in this case is not that," those six words -- "I know it when I see it" -- remain in our collective consciousness today because a definition for obscenity remains decidedly ambiguous.





To use the Internet at the Spokane Public Library, one must have a library card and patience. There are 19 computers with full Internet access, and they are almost always all in use. When a computer opens up, though, the user is free to log on. A screen is prompted that asks for a library identification number and a PIN.





And then there's a usage agreement: "Viewing illegal materials (obscenity, child pornography or materials harmful to minors) is prohibited," a passage from the agreement reads.





Child pornography speaks for itself. But obscenity -- what is obscene?





"Well, it's interesting," says Mark DeForrest, a law professor at Gonzaga University who has published and taught in the area of the First Amendment. "The courts have usually used the community standards approach."





He explains that the community standards in Des Moines, Iowa, are much different than those of Seattle and San Francisco. The bigger the city -- the bigger the community of any kind -- the more room for obscenity, it seems. He adds, however, that merely asking the question, "Is this obscene?" is ineffective. "That's a pretty squishy test. It's not a bright line test," he says.





The Internet has only complicated the issue. The uniting power of the Web, in its information-superhighway glory, has created a global community. But it has also deteriorated the authority of local communities. Now, with flesh photos at everyone's fingerprints, "which community standard applies?" asks DeForrest.





For public libraries, it has meant walking a fine line between protecting kids and satisfying grown-up interests. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that required federally funded libraries to filter the Internet. But the court also ruled that adults have the right to access material. As a result, policies vary around the country. Some libraries allow unfiltered access to adult-oriented sites, some provide it upon request, some are much more restrictive.





At times, the grayness of the issue has created some uncomfortable situations. In 2003, the same year as the high court's ruling, librarians in Minneapolis filed a suit in federal court saying they were subject to a hostile work environment because of all the explicit Web surfing and related masturbating. The library settled the case, paying the librarians $435,000, according to news reports.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pokane library officials say they don't have much of a problem with Internet porn use on their computers. Occasionally, a kid will steal a furtive glance at a dirty site. Or an adult will gawk at the assets of another on a lowbrow Webpage. By and large, though, they say it's a non-issue.





"It doesn't even come up anymore," says Dennis Fredrickson, branch manager of the downtown public library, of porn use. "It's so rare."





Fredrickson explains that he and his staff respect an individual's privacy and he maintains that, "we're not going around looking over everyone's shoulder." Pat Partovi, director of Spokane Public Libraries, says respecting privacy also means keeping in mind the sensitivities of others.





"If somebody is looking at something we think is inappropriate, we will remind the person that this is a public library," she says.





To ensure that inappropriate material is not as easily accessible, each computer at the downtown library has a default filter on the Internet access. Eva Silverstone, a library spokeswoman, says that the filter also exists to protect minors from accessing inappropriate content and that parents have the authority to turn off the filter if they choose. Adults can switch between filtered and unfiltered.





Becky Menzel is a librarian at the downtown branch and has worked here for about three years. Most of the time, she says, people use the Internet to find jobs, visit MySpace or check the stock market. But she can remember the last time someone used a library computer to view a sex site. It was two months ago, at computer No. 14.





"It was a kid, probably 18 or 19," she says. "But he was developmentally challenged." Menzel says she thinks the person did not realize what was happening.





There have been no issues since, she says, and the majority of the porn problems at the library occur with the wireless Internet. Menzel says sometimes a person will sneak off to a remote corner and take advantage of the complimentary wireless network.





In the end, the library is realistic about human weakness. "We put the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue out, and we know it won't last long," Menzel says with a grin.





Computers at the downtown branch don't last long either; most users reserve time, typically in one-hour blocks.





I want to do some investigating, so I stop by computer No. 14, the one where the porn viewing went down. It's about 15 yards as the crow flies from Menzel's post at the reference and information desk, still within her eyeshot. The computer is partitioned by walls to the left and right, though any passerby could see the computer screen from behind. Today, a man with a tattoo creeping out from his tank-top is browsing MySpace. I'll have to come back.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & arrive at the downtown library on Saturday at about 2 pm on a mission. I want to put the branch to the test: How will they handle a young man staring at porn for an extended period of time?





I climb the stairs of the library and reach the floor where the computers are located. There's a 15-minute wait. I ask a librarian -- Mark Pond -- to assist me in reserving one-on-one time with one of the desktops. No problem, Pond says, and hooks me up with computer No. 19, a computer tucked away in one of the corners.





Upon surveying my porn battle station, I realize this computer will not satisfy my objective. I want to be caught. I want to know what happens to the bad guys. I log back on to the computer reservation system and notice computer No. 14 is available. Oh, good old No. 14.





There's a family surfing the Internet to my right and an elderly couple reading at a desk behind me. In all, I count about 12 people nearby. Life as a public pervert is much harder than I expected.





I boot up No. 14. After a brief soul-searching session, I pull up Google and type "porn pictures." (As long as I don't open illegal images, i.e., child pornography, I should be OK.) I have millions of sites to choose from and I click on the first link, yobt.com. Sheepishly, I stare at the screen for a few seconds. Embarrassment kicks in, and I minimize the screen. I take a moment to build up some courage. I go for three- or four-minute viewing sessions, take a quick break and then repeat.





After 35 minutes, I retire from public porn viewing, having failed to draw a single complaint from library patrons. Pond, the librarian, later confirms that while he could see my screen, no one mentioned it to him. He says he used to work in Seattle, where porn viewing was so rampant that the library had to rearrange the computers so they weren't visible to children.





Nick Conklin is 20, a regular at the library. On this dreary Saturday, he flips the pages of a guitar magazine and says that while he doesn't like porn in general, he isn't about to stop anyone from enjoying a little at the library.





"I'd probably be like, 'Hey man, what the hell?'" he says. "I don't think someplace like this is appropriate."
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