Jamie McClelland
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Public Space in Cyberspace Jamie McClelland works for Media Jumpstart, an organization providing communications services for NYC nonprofits. Up until recently Jamie was Technology and Policy Specialist and Youth ACCESS coordinator for Libraries for the Future. Related pieces to this essay include Mark Lloyd's "Telecommunications Policy as a Civil Rights Issue," the lead article in the last issue of The Community Technology Center Review www.ctcnet.org/review.htm.
Jamie McClelland

What if, while entering your favorite public park, you were charged admission? Or your librarian asked for your credit card instead of your library card? What if public high schools charged tuition?

These scenarios are unthinkable because parks, libraries and schools were created as public institutions intended to provide access to everyone, regardless of income.

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Library demonstrators in Harlem -- when the budget cuts looked like they would mean severely shortened hours, Brooklyn and Manhattan Friends of the Library and ACORN helped mobilize support. Photo provided by Libraries for the Future.
Alongside private spaces like bookstores, health clubs, and cafes, they provide a commercial-free "public space" for the exchange of ideas, an opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other, or simply a quiet place to explore.

In addition to providing physical public spaces, community technology centers, public libraries, cable access centers, community radio stations, and other groups make electronic public spaces available. These public spaces are constantly threatened -- by large mergers of telecommunications companies, changes in public interest laws, commercialization of "free services" (like web mail), exaggerated risks from "obscenity," or simply short-sighted legislators questioning modest expenditures like the e-rate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

Unfortunately, conveying the importance of public electronic spaces is much more difficult than conveying the importance of a public park or school. Thus Libraries for the Future, a national public library advocacy organization, has developed a Telecommunications Advocacy Project (TAP). The goals of TAP include promoting public awareness of pending telecommunications legislation and its implications for public access and learning; building the skills of public access advocates in analyzing and influencing legislation; and promoting the development of a common agenda for democratic communications policies involving diverse groups such as advocates for public libraries, community technology centers, public access TV stations, and independent media arts.

Following is an edited excerpt from Libraries for the Future's most recent tool -- Public Space in Cyberspace: Library Advocacy in the Information Age, by Doug Schuler and Jamie McClelland (cf. pages 28-29).

Public Space in Cyberspace: Libraries in the Digital Age is available online at www.lff.org/advocacy/technology/public. For a print version, please send $9.95 plus $3 shipping and handling, made out to Libraries for the Future, to: Public Space Order, Libraries for the Future, 121 W. 27th Street, Suite 1102, New York, NY 10002 or call 800-542-1918, 212-352-2330.

Tell Me Again, Why is it important?

When advocating for public space in cyberspace, we encounter two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The first is language. How can we convey these ideas in a way that people identify with? Mentioning the words "telecommunications policy' usually earns the speaker blank stares. The second is a lack of perceived need. New forms of communication have been promoted in such a consumer-oriented way that electronic communication is more often perceived as a privilege that should be paid for by individual consumers, rather than being a fundamental feature of a democratic society in the 21st century.

Telecommunications policy is most understandable to the general public when it involves issues of censorship and the First Amendment. Promoting a public space in cyberspace is also closely related to our constitutional right to free speech. We, as public space advocates, need to build on this connection.

Recently, Libraries for the Future commissioned a study about some of fiscal and legal aspects of the public library, including a look at the question: Do we have a constitutional right to receive information through the public library? (Scurria, K.L., 'Public Libraries and the Law: A Preliminary Study with Special Attention to Issues of Interest for New York City Library Advocates," 1997, NY: Libraries for the Future.) This study suggests that the slogan "Information is a right" has convincing legal standing and provides a strong argument for public space advocates of all stripes. Here are just a few very suggestive legal opinions that show how First Amendment guarantees have expanded in these directions.

In the case of Grisold v. Connecticut, 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court held in striking down a state law prohibiting contraceptive devices as unconstitutional: "The right of freedom of speech and press includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read... and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom to teach... Without those peripheral rights, the specific rights would be less secure."

In 1978, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Court argued that "the First Amendment affords the public access to discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas... the right to receive information is an inherent corollary of the rights of free speech and press that are explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution... the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient's meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom."

This principle was applied directly to a public school library in the case Board of Education v. Pico, 1982. The Board of Education removed certain books from the school library that they considered to be "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy," and the students sued on the basis of their First Amendment right to receive information. The plurality of the court, ruling in favor of the students, argued that "the right to receive information" directly implicated the students' free speech rights, and declared that the First Amendment guarantees not only the right to self-expression but "public access to discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas."

The court applied this principle to public libraries more generally eleven years later. In Brinkmeier v. City of Freeport, the court concluded that public libraries are a designated public forum: public property that the government has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity. In the decision, the court concluded that "there is a First Amendment right to access the Freeport Public Library."

Expansive as these decisions are, they have not yet really integrated how telecommunications has radically transformed the way we receive information over the last five years, particularly the two-way, discussion-oriented nature of the Internet. None of the judges could have possibly foreseen the potential linkages between public libraries, computer networks, community TV, and other local information sources that advances in technology have made possible. Nevertheless, these Courts did establish a legal connection between receiving, producing, and discussing information; associated these activities with the public library; and, most importantly, stated unequivocally that these activities fall within the scope of our First Amendment right to free speech.

As information rapidly migrates to cyberspace, it is now more important than ever to grasp and call attention to these First Amendment rights. Increasingly, the lack of adequate public spaces in cyberspace may deny many people their right to receive, discuss, and produce information. Creating innovative partnerships that combine Internet access and communications, TV production, community forums, and access to library resources is one step toward realizing our First Amendment rights. The second step is communicating these rights to the public. By raising awareness of these issues as constitutional rights, we can build a base for guaranteeing public funding to make a sufficient public space in the growing realm of cyberspace.