Librarian Fired for Reporting Child Porn Web Surfing, but Questions Linger

Chronicles of Dissent reports the story of librarian Brenda Biesterfeld, who says she was fired after alerting authorities that a patron was viewing child pornography on library computers. Apparently she notified her supervisor (Hill) who told her merely to give the patron a warning, and not to notify the police. Biesterfeld notified the policy anyway, and after a 2nd occurrence and notification, the patron was arrested. Hill demanded to know how the police learned of the incidents, as she wanted it handled internally. The police protected Biesterfeld’s identity. However, she was fired two days later.

Dissent poses a few question/observations surrounding the event:

  1. Biesterfeld was instructed by her supervisor how to handle a situation. She did not follow the supervisor’s directions.
  2. If Biesterfeld was genuinely concerned about the situation, why didn’t she (also) do what her supervisor said and immediately go over and tell the man to stop and warn him?
  3. Biesterfeld was reporting a crime, or what she believed to be a crime, to law enforcement.
  4. Can your supervisor fire you for reporting a crime?
  5. Can she be fired — not for reporting the crime — but for failure to follow library policy and procedures as well?
  6. Should she have been fired?

I’ve thought about this a bit, and have a few responses and observations of my own:

I suppose Biesterfeld could be fired for insubordination, especially if there was a pattern of not adhering to library policy (we don’t know). However, this policy was, in my opinion, wrong both legally and morally. It is illegal to possess or view child pornography, and while I don’t agree with all laws (especially content-related), this is one that I support, and the library’s policy should be to immediately report violations to law enforcement.

Given this, both Biesterfeld and Hill should be faulted for not immediately reporting the crime, and more so on Hill for arguing with law enforcement that the library was “handling it.” If this was about someone looking up how to build a bomb I might agree that law enforcement doesn’t necessarily need be involved, but with child porn, law enforcement should be notified immediately.

HOWEVER, I question how Biesterfeld knew that this was actually child porn, and not just porn involving someone who looked young. This brings up a couple of important concerns related to patron privacy and intellectual freedom:

  • Was Biesterfeld actively monitoring the Internet usage, or just happened to pass by the computer and notice what was on the screen?
  • Did Biesterfeld somehow use a remote desktop system to view the patron’s computer screen and confirm her fears?
  • If it was not an obvious case of child porn (some, I suspect, are easily identifiable than others, unfortunately), do we want librarians in the business of making such judgment calls on whether a patron’s activities are legal or not?

It would be interesting to learn more details of this part of the story.

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