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Push for a 'V-Chip' On Library Videos

Parents seek curbs on 'R' lending

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 1996


WHEN Alexandra Quinn, a trustee of the Watertown (Mass.) Public Library, received a complaint that a video in the library bordered on soft pornography, she asked a group from the community to evaluate it with her.

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Mrs. Quinn describes herself as ''moderate'' in her views. But she and others were unprepared for what they saw. The unrated John Waters film, ''Dangerous Living,'' featured graphic sex and extreme violence.

''It's an absolutely disgusting movie,'' says Quinn, the mother of four and a substitute teacher. Concerned that children might check out the video under the library's unrestricted borrowing policy, she sparked a townwide controversy by asking the library board to limit children's access to such films.

Across the country, similar debates are intensifying as library video collections expand and include R-rated titles. Videos now account for 20 to 30 percent of circulation, with rates reaching 50 percent in some cities, according to the American Library Association. Parents and a handful of lawmakers argue that libraries should create policies - the paper equivalent of a V-chip - to keep minors from borrowing R-rated videos.

Library officials and civil liberties groups counter that it is parents' responsibility to shield children from objectionable material.

''We absolutely believe there should be restrictions, but we believe they should be placed by the parents and not the library,'' says George Needham, executive director of the Public Library Association in Chicago. ''The only appropriate monitor of a child's usage of these services is the parent, and the parent has the right only to monitor his or her own children's library usage, not the usage of all the children in the community.''

Mr. Needham explains that although the American Library Association makes recommendations, each library sets its own policies. ''We propose, the library trustees dispose,'' he says.

The controversy comes at a time of widespread public debate about children's access to on-screen violence and sex. Today the White House is convening a summit with leaders of the broadcast industry. The four major networks have just agreed to establish their own ratings system, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America's movie code. By law, television manufacturers must now install a V-chip in sets so parents can block certain programs. And the new communications law, already being challenged in court, makes it a crime to transmit ''indecent'' material to minors on the Internet.

Library 'Bill of Rights'

The board of the Watertown library refused to limit access to certain films, citing the American Library Association's Bill of Rights, which states that library use ''should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.''

Leone Cole, director of the Watertown library, defends the decision. ''Most libraries have open access,'' she says. ''Libraries have had controversial materials for a long time. I think people who are really aware of what's in the public library don't have a problem with this.''

Quinn disagrees, noting that many video stores do not allow children to rent R-rated titles. ''If one of our [library] functions is as a video store, we should be acting responsibly as a video store, and the same rules should apply - that minors 17 and under cannot take out an R-rated movie,'' she says.

Sue Parseghian, another mother in Watertown, acknowledges the complexity of the issue. ''I'm not speaking in terms of censorship,'' she says. ''But what is right for a 25-year-old person is not necessarily right for a 12-year-old boy or girl. I feel it's a community effort to be a watchdog for other children.''

That attitude is also spurring legislation to limit children's access to certain videos. In New York, a bill proposed with bipartisan support would forbid libraries from lending videos with R or NC-17 ratings to children under 17 without parental consent. Some librarians regard such measures as a form of censorship.

Robert Jacquay, director of the William K. Sanford Town Library in Loudenville, N.Y., says, ''My fear is that if we start to do something legislatively on videos, it's not going to stop there. It's going to spill over to books and pamphlets, and then there is no limit.''

In Indiana, State Rep. Woody Burton, a Republican, has tried unsuccessfully to introduce a similar bill requiring parental consent for children to borrow R-rated material. He plans to add it as an amendment to another bill this week.

''I'm not for restricting libraries,'' Representative Burton says. ''I'm not telling them not to have R-rated videos in libraries. I'm just saying they should not let children check them out without parental consent.''