In libraries, privacy or common good?

In “Firing of library worker causes uproar,” The Times explains the case of Brenda Biesterfeld, a California librarian who alerted police to a man allegedly viewing child pornography. It’s another example of the tail wagging the dog on issues of values and common sense. Two days after the arrest of Donny Lynn Chrisler, Biesterfeld was dismissed from her position.

The library, which has no policy against employees reporting child pornography, claimed that the firing was for administrative reasons, but Biesterfeld had received a satisfactory performance review just weeks earlier. And although she has received accolades from family advocates, the Lindsay City Council and many others, Tulare County officials stand firm in their decision to fire her.

But more incredible are the justifications offered by some “progressives,” who defend the library’s dismissal of the single mother of two on privacy grounds.

In a discussion on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Rutgers University law professor and criminal defense attorney Brian Neary characterized it as a case of free expression and argued that we are entitled to an expectation of privacy in a library. Interviewer John Kasich appeared incredulous as Neary went on to say that our libraries are sacred institutions of information that should not, therefore, police what we view, even if it is child pornography. Chrisler’s attorney, Roland Soltesz, told The Times something similar: “When I go to the library and check out ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Lolita,’ a librarian can call the police and give them my library record just because she doesn’t like classics that deal with sexy topics.”

Now, just for a moment, let’s think like people who haven’t succumbed to the post-Kinsey desensitization to sexual depravity: Why would we ever value the privacy of a person who publicly violates the law over the common good of the community? If it is illegal to download or possess child pornography in your own home, then it is ridiculous to assume that there is a right to privacy when viewing it in a library. Not only are you in a place where children could be exposed to child pornography, but you’re also in a place where those very children could be targets of abuse. Biesterfeld likely contemplated that.

Neary further stated that the library is undoubtedly concerned with employees “snooping around” in a place where ideas are free, and then drew a parallel between this case and the suppression of thought involved in banning books. "[The library] is a place where people can go to collect and gather ideas,” he contended.

Well, counselor, it certainly appears that Chrisler was gathering ideas about sexual fantasies involving children. If it is acceptable to view illicit porn in a public place as a matter of free ideas, perhaps we should also permit forgery of documents or printing counterfeit currency on library computers. For that matter, if terrorist threats were e-mailed from a library computer, would Neary and Soltesz consider that a right to privacy? In other words, privacy would trump all other laws designed to protect the common good.

We often hear of stories about violent criminals and ask, “Why didn’t someone act sooner? Why didn’t someone see the warning signs?” This has been said of school shooters, serial murders, rapists, child abusers, terrorists and others. In many or most of these cases, the inaction of ordinary people enabled evil to continue unchecked.

That question will not need to be asked this time, because someone acted on her conscience. Whether or not the police investigation uncovers further alleged criminal activity, such as molestation of children, Biesterfeld may well have thwarted a much worse outcome by notifying authorities of Chrisler’s suspect behavior.

Christopher D. Greene is a public relations consultant and freelance writer living in Buffalo, N.Y.

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