Education is not pornography

Censorship, General Interest

By: James LaRue, Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom

We first heard about challenges to the EBSCO database at the Cherry Creek (Colorado) School District in February of 2017. Today, the campaign has spread. Due to persistent pressure by a very small group of parents, the Cherry Creek School District ended its contract with EBSCO. The Utah Education Network has suspended the content to schools, and is inviting public comment. As of this week, EBSCO, and the Colorado Library Consortium, have been sued by the Thomas More Society, a national non-profit law firm “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty.”

The lawsuit, and subsequent close examination, might be the best possible solution to the fact-challenged bullying of what has now become an anti-education smear campaign.

The claims, created and promulgated by two Colorado parents with the support of the former Morality in Media, now called the National Center On Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), are fully as absurd as they were in the beginning. For instance, the complainants claim:

  • EBSCO has content that is not just “pornographic” (a term that is never defined), but also “obscene” and “harmful to minors.”
  • Schools and librarians were pushing this content, knowing it to be inappropriate for minors.

Let’s settle the big stuff right out of the gate. EBSCO is mostly a curated collection of mainstream magazines, journals, and newspaper articles. It doesn’t have obscene content. It just doesn’t. Nor is there a shred of evidence that students are using it the way these parents are (to deliberately look for titillating content). In fact, there is considerable evidence (based on aggregated search analytics) that students use EBSCO just the way you’d hope: to do their homework, to study up on educational topics.

And let’s be totally clear about this, too: If middle or high school students are looking for sex on the internet, they do not start with library databases.

While the package of periodicals may vary by intended audience, and does allow some further curation by librarians, we really are talking about the magazines you find in the grocery store or corner newsstand. The people behind the complaints have a very clear agenda. They don’t think sexual content of any kind is ever appropriate, not for school children (sex education articles), not for military personnel (NCOSE opposes strip clubs and men’s magazines on or near bases), not even for adult consumers (NCOSE leaders tried to pressure stores not to carry the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue).

The problem here isn’t pornography in library databases. The problem is a group of people who believe their prudery should be public policy.

The tactics are very transparent.

  • First, “parents” do complex, multi-step searches, using terms and strategies rarely practiced by students, to get to content that references human sexuality. The offending article might be, and often is, something in Time magazine, or a men’s or women’s health magazine. It might be a Cosmopolitan article about the female orgasm. It might be a small ad in the back of a magazine for sex toys. It might be an article on birth control. It might be a link, in a research article about the effects of pornography, to external sites. It might be a description of a novel (but not its content). EBSCO, and libraries, sample the content of our culture. Sometimes, people talk about sex.
  • The parents present these results as self-evident proof of a problem. The stunned media, accepting the claims at face value, amplify the message, in essence giving NCOSE the coverage it was seeking.
  • At first mostly via Facebook attacks, but now at school boards or public library board meetings, the parents demand the immediate suspension of these databases.

The amazing thing is that their tactics seem to be working. In today’s climate, there is such fear of controversy among administrators that they simply won’t face even the possibility of public belief that they are not “protecting” children from sexual information. At present, an estimated 130+ schools have quietly removed the resource. It may be higher.

In short, this is a staggeringly successful censorship effort directed against the public sector. Just a handful of parents, armed with the utterly spurious research and outrageous accusations by a national faith-based pressure group, accomplishes something that does present a threat to our children: It deprives them of a current tool for research that guides them to curated materials from authoritative sources evaluated by educators and subject matter experts.

Since 2010, America has lost over 20% of its school librarians. In many elementary, middle, and high schools, library budgets, never very robust, have been slashed to the bone. For those schools, shared databases like EBSCO (or ProQuest, or Gale products, which have also been targeted) represent pretty much the only bona fide tools for school research that remain. In a time of allegations of “fake news,” of willfully deceptive articles on all topics, one might think it worthwhile to invest in the critical thinking skills of students.

The Pornography is Not Education folks, to protect children from internet sex, are leaving students with the only other option: Google and their smartphones. Students will be left, literally, to their own devices. How, one wonders, will this advance NCOSE’s goals?

The parents’ rallying cry — in the latest lawsuit against the Colorado Library Consortium and EBSCO itself — is that “Pornography is not education.” What they don’t seem to understand is that education is not pornography, either.

For more on the EBSCO controversy, see False Witness: Morality in Media and EBSCO, published in the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy, and Anyone Can Sue: Legal Intimidation as a Censorship Tool and Responding to Database Challenges, published here on the OIF blog.

Jamie LaRue

James LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.


  • “The Pornography is Not Education folks, to protect children from internet sex, are leaving students with the only other option: Google and their smartphones.“

    Great! Because no one has EVER found pornography on Google, right?

    What’s scary to me is not that people such as the NCOSE parents exist, it’s how much power we are willing to give this very vocal, very small minority. Time to take a stand, educators.

  • This obvious attempt at censorship and tge lawsuit seem to be great topics to bring to the attention of NEXT Host Kyle Clark, Denver 9News. He does not shy away from “controversy” and many folks in Colorado who don’t know about the issue will be reached.

  • The ALA makes the incredible leap of wanting to prohibit a child’s access to pornography as being anti-education. This is a stretch, at best, and plainly intellectually dishonest. It is only anti-education if you believe that making pornography available to children is education. We would be interested to see how many parents sign-on to this bold statement.

    The ALA seems to be under the impression that our organization seeks to limit the parent universe from accessing pornography from the EBSCO databases. Nothing could be further from the truth. Parents, adults, are entitled to any material that they see it. Parents, should they choose to do so, are entitled, subject to applicable law, to make pornography available to their children, if they so wish.

    What they are not entitled to do is make it available to our children. There are obscenity laws that prohibit it.

    Just as adults cannot provide alcohol to children, they cannot make pornography available to children.

    Just as tobacco products cannot be sold to children, obscene material cannot be made available to children.

    Again, if the ALA members want to provide pornography to their children, they are certainly free to do it, but not to our children.

    The curious thing about the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Blog is the extent to which it is entirely self-serving. Every library our group has contacted has refused to post a notice that pornography will be available on library computers, through their advertised “Homework Help” databases. This is not the help that children are expecting. They hide the existence of this material. So, who is really the censor?

    The ALA then makes a fatal flaw in reasoning: they state that there is no pornography in the EBSCO database but then go on to say that members of our organization are using “titillating” search terms to find the obscene material.

    So, which is it? The material does not exist, or it does? It cannot be both. If it doesn’t exist, then no matter the titillation of the search term, no obscene results should be returned. And if the material does exist, what difference does the search term or method used make? It is irrelevant. The question is: Why is pornography available in a database “curated” for children? Why are they bombarded with ads for sex-toys and sex shops?

    If our organization’s claims are so spurious, why have 130+ schools discontinued their use of the EBSCO databases. What does this say about the EBSCO databases?

    In a curious interpretation of the word “sex”, the ALA seems to be confusing it with pornography. Why is this? If a child is interested in “sex”, it might be that they want some medically sound, scientifically valid information on STD’s, some information on genetics, maybe the objective information of the actual mechanics of the act. Why does the ALA equate “sex” with pornography? We just don’t understand why we need to explain to them that the two are not synonymous. For the information of the ALA, that means they are not the same. Pornography is not in the same ballpark as sex.

    It is clear that the ALA has an agenda, and it does not include the safety of children using the EBSCO database. Our agenda is clear: pornography should not be made available to children for the profit of corporations.
    We have never advocated that these databases be removed. What we have repeatedly said is that they need to be cleaned up and have the pornography removed. If that cannot be done, then they need to be removed.
    Our organization does not speak for National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) but we admire their work. They fight the good fight for the protection of women and children from sexual exploitation. In this age of #metoo, the rightness of their fight should be self-evident. Apparently not to the ALA. In some manner, their constant use of their old name, Morality in Media, seems intended to ridicule NCOSE, as if morality is a concept to be ridiculed. The ALA deserves our pity.

    If the ALA is interested in developing critical thinking skills, then it might do well to consider the current statistics on the epidemic of pornography related social ills we are seeing across the country. Research indicates that the average age of a child first exposed to pornography as about 11 years old. This is not something that society should be proud of. And how does that first exposure occur? Could it be the databases that schools and libraries are using?

    The closing paragraphs of this error-ridden, fact-challenged, and logic-starved article should alarm any reader. It verges on the hysterical, telling readers that if they can’t accept the pornography in the school and library databases, then they risk not providing any education to children at all. Really? If you don’t take the porn, then you don’t get the education? Is that a position the ALA really wants to stand by?
    For readers of this blog, please visit the web site below, where you will find a form allowing you to join our organization. Our children are our future. Do you like the future that the ALA and EBSCO paints for your children?

  • We’re fighting against this group in Lamar, hoping they will just quietly go away. But obviously that is not going to happen. They seem to relish the attention, and the more we listen to them the more power the get. Can’t we just ignore them and hope they’ll go away? Guess not. They have requested an hour of time at the next city council meeting. They asked for 20 minutes with the library board and we couldn’t get them shut down for nearly an hour. Wonder how long their hour with the city will last???

  • These parents are responsible for their children. It’s also clear that they need to understand how curated databases work. The parents, as a group, are wrong; as individuals, they have a right to ban curated material for their own children. This is adding to the ignorance in our educational system.

  • Fantastic blog you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get feed-back from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

  • Here are the problems:

      – You never define “pornography.” You just use it as click bait.
      – You toss around “obscenity” (a legal term) without referent. Yet we know that the titles you challenge are such innocuous mainstream magazines as Time.
      – You produce results from EBSCO searches that seem suspiciously difficult to replicate.
      – You have lied about EBSCO: no one ever “admitted” there was obscene content in their files.
      – You have pressured not just schools, but public libraries, to eliminate EBSCO. You have celebrated each removal. But again, the particular target is the content of mainstream periodicals.
      – Your call for filtering is disingenuous. Since you provide no definition of what you’re trying to “protect” children from, it’s likely that no filter will satisfy your concerns. You are indeed calling for the elimination of electronic databases in schools.
      – You have made no statements about what you will replace them with. What will high school students study to understand the adult world? Given your mischaracterization of ALA (one of NCOSE’s “Dirty Dozen”), I’m guessing the NEXT question is, are library books safe enough?

    In short, your group, like the former Morality in Media, argues for censorship, for the elimination of as much sexual content in popular media as possible. It is they, it is you, who conflate sex and pornography, not ALA. And that is a real threat to public education institutions, who are already starved for research materials.

    The attempt to pressure school districts with the threat of a lawsuit was very effective. That doesn’t mean that school administrators agreed with your claims. They were scared off by the specter of bad press. But I can’t help but think the actual lawsuit is a profound tactical error. Now you’ll have to defend these utterly indefensible charges in court. Good luck!

  • As always, parents and children have the right to put filters on their children’s computer and cell phones so that their children do not see what they do not want them to see. The Librarian in this case work should have worked with EBSCO to do this and to work with both parties, for and against. That way everyone has the freedom to choose what their family can read or access through the database. Intellectual freedom and the freedom to read should never be obstructed. If all the parents in the district want filters on their children’s school computers then there is a problem. Be even if one parent of a child wants access, the school district must accomodate if it accepts federal funding. Accomodation is the key here, then the school board or whatever, can relook at the issue.

  • “The most glaring example of censorship is that our group’s response to this fact-challenged opinion piece has been deleted. Apparently, the ALA is not opposed to censorship.”

    NOPE! It’s still there right above this one. Dated October 12 at 7:57 pm. Saw it then, see it now. So I guess it’s another case of you seeing things that aren’t there.

  • oh let them have their way – if they want block something – because it ‘s obscene -to them – so be it .. I guarantee the kids in the area -will find a way around it — the more one blocks -the more the other side ‘tackles’

  • Apparently, the couple’s child(ren) have a bit more devious behavior than they imagined. Perhaps all that sheltering has caused them to seek information that has been prohibited at home. There is a reason that we, a democratic society, have laws, which conform and protect us. No one is above the law, and the last time I looked, it is the 21st-century, which means that you could walk into the grocery store and see someone’s a*s-crack: Is this considered pornography? How about the stuff they play on Prime Time TV? Or, are people so ignorant that they think teachers and librarians are out to get their kids. “God” forbid they get an honest education.

  • I work in a library and sometimes I want to get rid of Ebsco myself but not because there is pornography. My complaints about Ebsco are more mundane . . . It is not user friendly, everything is password protected, and it is too God damned expensive! Our return on investment isn’t great IMHO.

  • Kids will be kids and find things they shouldn’t. I cannot count the nights I picked up stacks of books from the art and health sections of the public library where I worked years ago before the Internet. I myself looked up dirty words in the dictionary. If you want to find something dirty you will. If you research what you are supposed to research you will find that too. This is the modern version of book burning and thank you for telling the kids what they can find in the databases. Maybe they’ll actually use them.

  • Thank you for this article. We are currently fighting against this fringe group here in Utah. I didn’t think I would have this fight against censorship in 2018. But it is a fight I am willing to take on. Finding a few “yucky” images does not justify removing the entire database. Thank you OIF!

  • Gee, I wonder who’s behind them and I’m sure they are part of the MAGA regime and just love Betsy DeVos!

    Sad that these people have nothing better to do – maybe they could go and volunteer to help underserved children with homework and observe how these resources are actually used. As mentioned in one of the articles, students don’t generally use databases to get obscene materials. Sheesh!

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