A few months ago, newspapers around the state ran attention-grabbing headlines reporting that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was protesting the use of cameras in the public areas of the larger public restrooms of the Iowa City Public Library. Shortly thereafter, members of the Iowa Legislature proposed a law banning such cameras in all government buildings. The proposed ban places the most vulnerable members of our community, our children, in danger in the public library, a community gathering place that should make its patrons feel safe. Iowa citizens should ask their legislators to vote against the ban.
The many news articles about the ACLU complaint and the proposed legislation never really asked the question why the Iowa City Public Library decided to take the controversial step of installing the cameras in the first place. The question is even more important when one considers that the Library has worked so diligently to guard the privacy of its patrons.
The answer begins with another headline, this one from the October 5, 2005 issue of the Des Moines Register: “Offender Caught with Girl in Library Restroom”.
The news article goes on to say that a registered sex offender kidnapped a twenty month old toddler and sexually assaulted her in a locked men’s room.
That news coverage prompted a very long and very serious deliberation involving Iowa City Public Library Staff, the City Attorney’s Office, and the Library board of trustees. They concluded that the use of video cameras in the public areas of the restrooms — with signs alerting patrons of their use — balanced safety and security interests with personal privacy interests. They determined that these cameras could help protect children and protect property.
The potential good of the cameras and signs seemed huge, the potential harm minimal, particularly because there are so many unguarded items to steal in a public library, and because there are so many children in the presence of such a diverse population of adults.
The cameras, finally installed in 2007, have been effective and minimally invasive.
• The cameras view only the public areas of the restrooms. They cannot see into the stalls and are pointed away from the urinals. The cameras are visible. They are fixed.
• Conspicuous signs posted right outside the restroom doors alert patrons that cameras are in use inside. Thus, patrons are aware that adjustments to their clothes ought to be made inside the stalls. Indeed, when I asked the staff what immodest images they had seen, they couldn’t recall seeing any.
• The videos are viewed only when there is an incident reported by patrons, the staff, maintenance workers, or the police. That is to say, no one ever views the videos routinely or randomly. No one ever watches live-action on the monitor.
• Only four designated staff members may review the videos.
• The videos are discarded after a week.
Reviewing the videos, police have identified thieves and vandals, leading to their arrest and prosecution. Library staff have identified individuals who have committed drunken bathroom acts, leading to their suspension or ban from the library.
Most important, since the cameras and signs have been installed, no child has been endangered by being taken into a restroom by an individual unknown to them. While one cannot claim a direct causal action for something that has not occurred, it seems reasonable to conclude that the signs and cameras have served as a very strong deterrent.
What if the legislative ban were enacted and, a few days later, this headline appeared? “Little Girl Molested in Library Men’s Room”
Would you read about the near-repeat of the horrifying incident of 2005 and think to yourself, “Oh, that’s terrible, but the little girl’s molestation is a reasonable price to pay since, obviously, the removal of the cameras saved so many other people”? Saved them from what? How do the cameras harm? How do they threaten? How do they even inconvenience?
The cameras merely allow library staff and police to see what anyone else could see if they entered the common area of a restroom — or just happened to be standing outside when the door was opened. Recording activity that anyone standing in the common area of the bathroom could see does not render the video recording an unreasonable invasion of privacy. The public safety benefits from the use of these cameras heavily outweigh any perceived but ultimately baseless claims of invasion of privacy.
Members of the Iowa City Public Library Board of Trustees ask you to join them in protesting the ban on cameras in the common areas of library restrooms.
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• Jay Semel, of Iowa City, is president of the Iowa City Public Library Board of trustees.