The devil's in the e-mail 


Jim Hannon sends electronic mail around the world from the Orlando Public Library downtown. He converses with people in Australia, he says, and with his girlfriend in New Hampshire. He says he even got two job offers in his electronic mail box, which is important because Jim Hannon has no job, and is homeless. But Hannon did not reply to his offers. The librarians made sure of it, he says, by blocking access to his email account. "I didn't even know they were in there for two months," Hannon says of the offers. He told the librarians, "This is costing me opportunities." But the library doesn't offer email service. The part of the Internet browser software that allows one to send email has been disabled, says library spokeswoman Marilyn Hoffman. And while it is possible to set up a free email account through a commercial service like Hot Mail -- an account that uses no more library resources than someone simply browsing the web -- librarians have been diligent in blocking access to such providers. In fact, since last fall a silent battle has raged between the librarians and a group of about nine homeless people, led by Hannon, who continue to find ever more creative ways to send and receive email on the library's computers. Why is the library trying to stop them? "The resources here at the library are intended for research and all kinds of informational needs, rather than a message center," says Hoffman. The potential harm, of course, is that folks with email accounts will monopolize the terminals, spending hours reading and replying to messages. Hannon insists he's kept his use to less than 15 minutes a day. It's hard to know how true that is, but it is worth considering that other libraries simply enforce a time limit, and don't concern themselves with snooping through the electronic records that reveal what pages a particular patron has accessed. Hannon has protested the policy, at one point holding a sign on the sidewalk. He even got on TV; a Jacksonville station interviewed him, although their story was about the library's blocking pornography -- a policy that the ACLU may challenge in court `"Orange County's Net Nanny," March 13-19`. Ironically, his right to access photos of nude women is better protected, constitutionally speaking. "I'm not sure that Hannon or others have any constitutional right to email," says Andy Kayton, the Florida ACLU's legal director. "The library may be able to characterize it as a time-place-manner restriction." That's lawyer-talk for the restrictions most recently affirmed in a 1992 case, Kreimer v. Morristown, in which the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a New Jersey library to eject home-less folks for smelling bad or otherwise interfering with other patrons. Basically, the courts say libraries can proscribe free speech in certain circumstances if the prohibitions are specific to time, place and manner and "leave ample alternative channels of communication." According to Kayton, "It's highly questionable that the library can block a website based on the content or subject matter ... but if the reasons are not related to its subject matter, then they only need to show a reasonable basis for blocked." Is the Orlando library's basis for its no email policy "reasonable?" Ask Hoffman. "I wouldn't consider it a policy," she says. "From the beginning, we just don't offer email." Asked again the reason for the cat-and-mouse game with Hannon, she says the computers were installed so patrons could use the Internet, "with its wonderful, wonderful resources." The American Library Association has no formal policy on email, says Deborah Liebow, assistant director for the association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. But it tries to promote the broadest and most open use of the Internet, a policy that Orange County, which paid $7,500 last year for a software company to filter out "porno-graphic" web sites, is far out of step with. Hannon, meanwhile, soldiers on from the public terminal, the bibliotech outlaw. He gathers with friends each night in Lake Eola Park, to discuss technology and civil rights, and he has posted a web page at http://www.angelfire.com/ca/catsmeow/ index.html. The page, with selections from Hannon's favorite Grateful Dead concerts, was posted from the Orlando Public Library.

More by Ericson, Edward Jr.

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