The shelves of the Denver Public Library hold many items that some might find objectionable.
The books of the learned Laura Schlessinger, for example, bestsellers by the talk-show hostess with a doctorate in physiology whose advice clogs the airwaves.
Yes, the Denver Public Library contains many objectionable items -- but like Dr. Zhivago and Dr. Seuss, Dr. Laura has a perfect right to be there. It's a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
And as long as viewers want to watch Schlessinger's obscenely amateurish TV show that began airing on Channel 9 last week and continues to occupy an hour every weekday morning, they have a right to do that, too.
Even if Dr. Laura can't find anything better to pick on than a library.
Last Friday, I was in the belly of the beast -- addressing the annual conference of the Colorado Library Association, a group Dr. Laura had labeled as "evil" that very morning.
I owe a great debt to librarians. In my childhood, they oversaw a playground more entertaining than Disneyland: our local public library, where I started my wild ride in the children's room and then continued on into the adult stacks, reading my way through everything I could find. (When I was ten, a librarian refused to let me check out a copy of Dr. No -- but by then I'd already consumed all the good stuff deemed too racy for the movie.) And in my adulthood, not only have Denver's public librarians patiently answered an endless string of questions -- just how many times can you debate the spelling of Alfred Packer's name, anyway? -- they've also defended the right of readers to find this very paper in their collection (even if some Westword features make James Bond look like Harry Potter).
For her September 15 "Lewd Library" segment, though, Schlessinger went right past the shelves in favor of a more sexy -- and telegenic -- library commodity: computers. Specifically, the access that those computers give children to the Internet and, potentially, pornographic Web sites. And which lucky library did the good doctor decide to focus on? The Denver Public Library, which she reported had been deemed "one of the country's ten most unsafe libraries for children." (According to the DPL, the "unsafe library" list was compiled by one person years ago and doesn't reflect the policies and procedures currently in place in Denver.)
To illustrate the dangers, Schlessinger had fifteen-year-old Stacey Wells -- a Colorado resident who just happens to be related to one of the show's staffers -- don heavy glasses loaded with a hidden camera, then head into the DPL's adult section. After checking out a documentary on pornographic movies -- using the library's automated system -- Stacey moved on to the computer area, where she spotted one fellow looking at a pornographic site, then managed to click on to a few of her own. (She opted not to use the filter the library offers on computers in its adult area; computers in the children's area feature a much more elaborate search-engine system.)
"Oh, my God, I can't believe I can just do this," marveled Stacey -- although it wouldn't have been too hard for her to figure it out before, since the computer in the Wells home isn't filtered, either. In fact, there's no need for it to be: "I know what's right and what's wrong," Stacey added, showing a familial value system Dr. Laura would usually applaud. Instead, the show followed Stacey (still armed with the hidden camera) and her mother, Sandy, back into the DPL, where Mom asked a staffer (obscured on TV, but still steaming at the CLA conference) about the library's policies regarding minors checking out R-rated movies and X-rated Web sites. There's "no censoring in a library environment," the staffer said, adding that "parents and children are hopefully discussing this."
Just as Dr. Laura would urge them to. In fact, in her most recent bestseller, Parenting by Proxy: Don't Have Them If You Won't Raise Them (available, of course, at the DPL), Schlessinger discussed the need for parents to take responsibility for their children rather than let others do it. "Too many parents," she wrote, "today gladly surrender their authority to day-care workers, psychologists, schoolteachers and administrators."
Not to mention librarians, discussed at length on "Lewd Libraries" not just by the Wells family -- "The First Amendment thing, it's not even a fine line," pronounced Stacey -- but by anyone else whom Dr. Laura would let get a word in edgewise. And for a person who has such problems with the Internet, Schlessinger certainly plugged her own drlaura.com often enough -- particularly a daily poll (83 percent of the respondents would make filters mandatory for any library users under eighteen) and her speakout.com link protesting the American Library Association's policies. (No mention was made, however, of Dr. Laura's filter-company sponsor -- or of the fact that unauthorized naked pictures of Schlessinger were a big Web draw just last year.)
Although "Lewd Libraries" was far from scintillating viewing, apparently it was much better than it would have been had Dr. Laura not sent it back for rewrite. In an e-mail sent to librarians and other interested parties, Robert Willard, executive director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, the federal agency that has advised the Clinton administration on filtering, described his experience as a guest on the show. "The NCLIS had held a hearing on the topic 'Kids and the Internet: The Promise and the Peril' in late 1998," Willard wrote, "and had sent material about the hearing to Dr. Schlessinger. As is known to just about everybody, she has been an unrelenting critic of library policies that may allow kids to see pornography on Internet terminals in public libraries. A producer from her show contacted NCLIS on Monday, 7/31, to invite participation in the taping which was scheduled for the end of that same week. I agreed to take part." After watching the Wells family discuss the evils of the DPL, Willard talked about proposed Internet legislation with U.S. Representative Ernest Istook. Mostly, though, he listened to Dr. Laura.
The experience was so disagreeable that on his way back home from California, Willard wrote Schlessinger, suggesting that allowing more time for discussion would improve the show and also expressing regret at her "sensationalizing of the subject with reference to 'sex in the libraries' and 'X-rated' libraries." Apparently the producers were disappointed with the segment, too, and invited Willard out for a second taping. But this time the subject matter was no more substantive. Although the Wellses couldn't make it, their segment was repeated; the congressman was replaced by a Louisiana police chief who'd arrested a man for masturbating while checking out porn sites on a public-library computer.
"Regretfully," Willard concluded in his e-mail, "Dr. Schlessinger continues to demonize librarians and the American Library Association instead of seeking some way to work together to resolve this issue. But maybe that's the way to build up an audience in television...I don't know what the appropriate next steps are. It is said that Abraham Lincoln was asked once to comment on a particular book, and he said that it was the type of book that would appeal to people who like that type of book. Maybe the same is true of the Dr. Laura Show."
So far, the Dr. Laura Show isn't breaking any ratings records. In fact, media analysts say the audience share drops off drastically -- as much as 28 percent -- as Dr. Laura comes on and viewers click off. What works on radio just hasn't translated to TV, no matter how many salacious Web sites Dr. Laura seeks out, as eagerly as Miss Jane Hathaway in pursuit of Jethro.
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But even if this TV show is not just bad, but boring, Dr. Laura still has a right to make it, as long as Paramount wants her to and Channel 9, like most major markets around the country, wants to schedule it and Rocky's Autos still has cars it wants to advertise on it. And, of course, those who object to Laura Schlessinger -- including the dozens of people who protested the show's September 11 debut in Denver, targeting her benighted and widely aired (but so far only on radio, not on television) views on homosexuality -- have a right to criticize the program and complain to any advertiser they choose.
Life on the free-speech frontlines isn't easy. People are forever taking potshots, trying to take you out of circulation altogether. So far, though, the DPL is holding firm.
Being singled out by the good doctor "was not a lot of fun," says City Librarian Rick Ashton, "but it was an opportunity to be in focus about our intentions and practices and to tell the community about them once again."
By the way, that's Dr. Rick -- and even if Ashton's doctorate is in history, not physiology, he recognizes when a talk-show host doesn't have a leg to stand on.