WASHINGTON — If you do not believe the following story, I won't blame you. But I've checked it twice: If you take your child - say, a 6-year-old - to a typical library, you will be asked to sign a card stating that if the child loses a book, you will make the library whole. If your kid misplaces the book, you get a note from the library. When you call, asking, "Sorry, but what book did Johnny lose?" you will be told: "We do not release such information - unless you bring a note from your child."
If you are still gasping, here is how this came about: The American Library Association concluded that it ought to defend the privacy of its patrons from the press, former spouses, and (the best it can) police. Then in 1996, it added parents to the list. Moreover, several states enacted laws to the same effect. Note that the code speaks of all children, not merely those 12 years or older.
The American Library Association is hardly alone in treating children as if they are entitled to the same basic rights as adults. The American Civil Liberties Union takes the same stance. It has succeeded, by filing lawsuits, in forcing several libraries to remove filters that protect children from the violent and vile parts of the Web. Ann Beeson, an ACLU national staff attorney, wrote, "We applaud the Board of Supervisors' decision to honor the First Amendment rights of Kern County [Calif.] citizens by ... allow[ing] all adult and minor patrons to decide for themselves whether to access the Internet with or without a filter." Note: No age qualification is introduced.
The CATO Institute goes further. It even objects to controls corporations placed on themselves voluntarily. At issue is the habit of corporations to collect tons of information about their customers from them and other sources, in order to tailor ads to them - many also sell the data.
Some corporations culled consumer information about children who play on sites maintained by companies that sell cereal (among others). When they were criticized, they promised not to collect information about children 12 or younger without parental consent. CATO protested, stating, "It makes little sense to morally condemn those who sell to children when we ourselves give children the means to buy. So regulation of marketing ... that contain[s] information about children is no more justified than regulation [that] contain[s] information about adults."
Along the same lines, the ACLU vociferously objected to a ban on Joe Camel ads that have proved effective in enticing children to smoke. The ACLU argues that it is unreasonable to suppress ads that target children because doing so also limits information to adults. As the ACLU puts it, "Adults cannot be reduced to reading only what is fit for children."
All these fine people are concerned about the First Amendment rights of children. At issue is not the "production" of speech but its "consumption." From the viewpoint of civil libertarians, denying a child access to any cultural product is similar to someone saying go ahead and publish a book - but we will not allow anyone to sell or ship it.
If you say, "but we are limiting access only for children," the libertarians counter: "You never know who will want to read, say, a comic loaded with tobacco ads; to restrict access to children is tantamount to limiting access for all of us."
But, you wonder, what about devices that only keep children at bay, say, the filters in libraries (which adults can remove at will). The libertarians come back with the example of a teenager who wishes to find information about abortion or HIV but is afraid to let their parents know. Hence, libertarians argue, the need to allow children unfettered access.
All this disregards that children do not come in one size. Up to a certain age - say, 13 - they have few of the capabilities that make us hold that adults should be free to read or view whatever they want. Among the items children still have in short supply are needed information, experience, judgment, and values.
The point of education is to prepare children to be autonomous adults. If they were simply mini-adults from the get-go, whose bodies needed to grow but who otherwise had the capacity to act on their own, much of parenting would be superfluous. But until biotech preforms such a miracle, parents have not only the right but the duty to form educational environments for their children so that they can grow up to be the kind of adults civil libertarians seem to assume children to be. To proceed, parents need to choose what their children are reading, viewing on TV, and exposed to online.
Moreover, it makes no sense to treat all "minors," from 0 plus 1 day to 18 years of age, as if they were of one kind. Children gradually grow in their capacity. Restraints essential for toddlers and kids in primary schools become less compelling when they turn 13, and damaging for adolescents. (One may say that there are differences within each age group, but public policy cannot make endless distinctions - as we see, for instance, in the labeling of movies and CDs, which is also, by the way, opposed by libertarians.)
More is at stake here than what happens when you take your children to a library to check out a book or use a computer. At issue are the ways we treat children. Do we see them as having full court rights, especially First Amendment ones? Or do we consider them their parents' wards until they grow up, whenever that is, but surely not before age 13?
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University. His most recent book is 'The Monochrome Society' (Princeton University Press).