A family trip to the local library left an Ottawa woman and her two daughters shaken after they observed a man watching hardcore pornography at a public computer terminal.

What surprised Jennifer St. Pierre even more, however, was to find out that the man was perfectly within his rights.

'It opened up a dialogue I never thought I'd be having with my 11-year-old about what that man was watching. It was not right for me to have to do that at that age.' - Jennifer St. Pierre

St. Pierre said she was searching for a book at the Greenboro branch of the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) in late July when her daughters Ava and Ella, ages 13 and 11, told her they'd seen something disturbing on a nearby computer screen.

"My 13-year-old came up to me and said, 'Mom, I think there's somebody watching something inappropriate over there.' I went over and sure enough this man was watching very graphic porn. You could see the site was pornhub.com," St. Pierre said, referring to a popular free porn site.

Jennifer St. Pierre

Jennifer St. Pierre and her daughters Ella, 11, and Ava, 13. (Jennifer St. Pierre)

The man was sitting at a public computer terminal in a high-traffic area of the library. St. Pierre immediately informed a staff member, then took her children home, she said.

After sharing her experience on social media and hearing from one friend that what the man was doing was in fact allowed, an incredulous St. Pierre decided to follow up with the library the next day.

She was told anyone can access online pornography at the Ottawa Public Library, so long as the material they're viewing is legal and they're over 18, she said.

"I was really angry," St. Pierre said. "It opened up a dialogue I never thought I'd be having with my 11-year-old about what that man was watching. It was not right for me to have to do that at that age."

'We respect their intellectual freedom'

The manager of branch operations for the Ottawa Public Library, Catherine Seaman, said library staff aren't in the business of policing what patrons are viewing on the internet.

Catherine Seamon

OPL's manager of branch operations, Catherine Seaman, said staff will not censor legal content but may ask a patron viewing pornography to move to another computer. (CBC News)

"When it comes to adults accessing information, whether it be in books or magazines or on the internet or on computers, we do respect their intellectual freedom," Seaman said.

OPL has web filters in place to block access to illegal material such as child pornography and hate literature. Otherwise content is not censored, Seaman said, because what one person finds offensive, another doesn't.

"The definition of pornography is very dependent on your own sensibilities. There are all kinds of things — a scene of violence, for example — that someone might reasonably find offensive," she said.

Code of conduct

Seaman pointed out OPL has installed privacy screens to limit what other patrons are able to see on a computer screen, and said the library's code of conduct gives librarians licence to ask anyone viewing explicit material to move to a more discreet location in the building.

'If they are letting their children go off on their own, that risk is going to be there, wherever they go.' - Catherine Seaman, OPL

"If you let our staff know that you've seen something you consider offensive, they will deal with it right away," Seaman said. "In the past, customers approached in this manner have been very understanding, and very obliging in going somewhere else." 

The library's public network access policy does ask patrons to "respect the sensibilities of others when accessing sites that may reasonably be considered offensive to others."

It's ultimately the parent's responsibility to keep an eye on their children in public spaces, according to Seaman.

"When parents come in here with their children, we do expect them to be with their children," she said. "If they are letting their children go off on their own, that risk is going to be there, wherever they go." 

Indecent act?

Ottawa criminal lawyer Michael Spratt warns the matter may be more complicated than drawing a line between what's legal and what's not, because the material is being viewed in a public place.

Michael Spratt

Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt said openly viewing porn in public could, in certain situations, be considered an indecent act under the Criminal Code. (Michael Spratt)

"Viewing hardcore but legal pornography in a public place, visible to members of the public including children, may be considered to be an indecent act, which can be punishable by up to two years in jail," Spratt said.

While it's perhaps unreasonable to expect librarians to monitor what patrons are watching at all times, the public viewing of pornography should be discouraged when it's brought to their attention, he said.

"First off it's inappropriate behaviour, and it very well could attract the scrutiny of the criminal justice system, so it should be avoided," Spratt said.

It would be up to a court to decide whether a specific incident constitutes an indecent act, he added.