Some say the Internet will put libraries out of business. I'm not worried. What I am concerned about is a poorly written law known as the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress last year as part of the Telecommunications Reform Act.
Two federal district courts have found the Communications Decency Act to be in violation of our First Amendment right of free speech. The Supreme Court must now decide whether to uphold the lower courts' ruling, which has been appealed by the government, or to clear the way for its enforcement.
As a member of my local library board, I am entrusted with seeing that members of my community have information resources that will serve their many different needs and interests. Traditionally, this has meant books and other print resources. Today it means books on tape, CDs, videos, and computers.
A small but rapidly growing number of public libraries - about 28 percent - provide direct public access to the Internet, the global network of networks that puts a whole world of information before your eyes at the touch of a computer keyboard.
The Communications Decency Act makes it a criminal offense to transmit on the Internet what is vaguely defined as "indecent" or "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards" for minors.
What it means for public
What does this mean for library users and other members of the public?
It means anyone who knowingly sends or displays materials over the Internet to minors that could be interpreted as "indecent" could be imprisoned for up to two years and fined up to $250,000.
It means that libraries and bookstores could be prosecuted for posting materials on-line that are perfectly legal on their shelves, such as "Huckleberry Finn," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and other highly regarded but controversial works. Museums and health agencies could be at risk for transmitting great works of art containing nudity or medical information with graphic depictions of body parts or functions that some might consider unsuitable.
Would this happen? Maybe not. Could it happen? Yes. The law is so broad and vaguely worded that it would, in essence, ban everything that some consider unsuitable for those under the age of 18, including information that many adults might need for their studies, their jobs, their health, and other needs.
Today, anyone can log on to a computer at home or the library and find the most current medical research, access material from the Library of Congress, or "visit" a museum across the country - or world. Under the decency act, providing this access could become too risky for libraries, depriving millions of children and adults - without computers at home - of this important tool.
Members of Congress claim they voted for the act in the belief that it will protect children from sexually explicit materials. It won't. Worse yet, the act may mislead parents into believing that the government is protecting their children from inappropriate material. In fact, the nature of the Internet, with millions of transmissions originating each day from all parts of the world, makes this law impossible to enforce.
Existing laws already make it illegal to distribute obscene material in any form to minors. Those laws should be strictly enforced. There are also other ways to protect children on-line that do not curtail anyone's freedom of information or free speech, the best and most important being parental supervision. As with reading or TV viewing, children benefit most when they have the time and attention of parents who teach them to make good choices.
One thing not changed
The Internet has been hailed as the greatest advance in communication since the printing press - one that will change how we live, learn, work, govern, and interact with each other. One thing it won't change is the importance of free speech in a free society.
We live in a country where no one can tell us what we should or shouldn't read. Libraries are one of our great democratic institutions, and librarians have long been champions of public access to information.
I believe that will be as true in the next century as it has been in the last. As a library trustee, I support freedom of information for all, whether or not I agree with what they choose.
The historic case now before the Supreme Court will determine how this most precious freedom will apply to the Internet. I, for one, want that freedom protected for my children and grandchildren, whether they're reading from a book, a magazine, a newspaper - or computer screen.
* Virginia McCurdy serves on the board of the DeKalb County (Ga.) Public Library and is president of the American Library Trustee Association, a division of the American Library Association, the lead plaintiff in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act.