|Public Space in Cyberspace
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.
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.
|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
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.
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
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
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 Ñ 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
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
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.