Whistleblowing, Ethics, and Internet Use

UPDATE: Since I’m venturing into potentially controversial territory, I thought it would be a good time to remind my readers that this is my commentary on a situation that occurred in a library in California and not necessarily the opinions of my employer. I will say that I believe we are well-prepared for emergency situations, and their official approach in my view is rational, fair and on the whole, quite solid. Equally, staff are just as responsible in their actions.


A few days ago, there was a news articles I saw via LISNews about a librarian being fired because she called the police on a child porn-watcher against orders from her supervisor. Comments abound in outrage, of course. My first impression on the issue was a “how could they do that?” as well.

But it goes to show that tricky issues require forethought. Here is my final assessment of the issue. Obviously, I do not have the entire facts on this case, so I can only take the media’s report at face value. Nor am I a lawyer, so this is just a layperson’s opinion.

Ought the library have had clear polices on what to do in the case a child pornographer appears? Yes.

Ought a successful library leader have empowered his/her staff to make that phone call? Yes.

Is the library in its rights to fire the librarian who made the phone call? Also yes.

Is it likely that the librarian made an unfortunate ethical mistake? Yes.

To get why I think the way I do, you are going to have to separate the issues of effective management and professional ethics. In an ideal world, we would have bosses who always make the right decisions; who act through common sense; who establish policies and procedures ahead of time to prepare us for the hard situations; and who empower employees to make good decisions when the policies do not cover the situation. But the reality is that this is not always the case. In fact, it is rare. Most of the time we will be working in imperfect organizations. Sometimes the organizations are even outright wrong in their approaches to situations.

But working in an imperfect organization does not make it less important to think through our own decisions. In my view, this employee should have asked herself the following questions before acting:

  • Is there clear evidence of imminent public danger?

Not likely. Watching child porn is a heinous crime and the creation of the porn is absolutely harmful to children. However, it does not put the public in imminent danger. Yes, we do not want these guys on our streets. No, we should not react to the child porn watcher as we do the rapist, robber, or murderer.

  • Is he/she ultimately accountable for the actions of the organization?

No. When the grey areas hit, it is going to be the director who takes the hit for any bad decision of any employee. The director, therefore, has a right to a say in what should happen in this situation.

  • Was she/he absolutely sure that action (such as calling the police) was not going to happen after some review?

It’s hard to assess this without the facts, but I am adding the question because it is important. Just because the manager did not call the police now doesn’t mean that he/she would not make a report to a higher-up who in turn may decide that, yes, the police should be called.

  • Was he/she sure of all the facts in the case?

I’m willing to assume yes, because it does turn out that he/she was right. But my question about imminent danger could be changed significantly if the porn the accused was watching was a live show.

  • Did she have time on her side?

This is the kicker. The librarian had plenty of time to make a report to the police with lots of lovely evidence to show when they came.

In my view, the librarian should have:

  1. Made it clear to her boss that her view is that the police should be called.
  2. Record the incident with as much detail as possible. Recording the identity of the person would even be appropriate so long as the report was not going to be shared.
  3. Make sure that the details of the case make it to the CEO or Director of the library. Give the supervisor a chance to do it first. Then, pass up the report.
  4. Still no action? This is where you consider the whistle-blow. President of the board may work. Or the police. This is not going to be a career-advancing decision.

In the end, I understand that the firing of the employee is being reviewed. I also see this as a good thing. I’m not sure that firing the employee is quite the right disciplinary action, despite that I believe he/she made a mistake. Good management would come up with something more appropriate — although what would depend on a bunch of mitigating factors of which I have no knowledge.

And, in the end, you cannot always assume good management.

14 thoughts on “Whistleblowing, Ethics, and Internet Use

  1. Illegal is illegal, no? I agree with your sentiment of no imminent danger to the public but had someone lit up a joint, been loaded drunk, or wielding a knife in the nonfiction aisle, an employee wouldn’t have been fired for alerting the authorities. Viewing child pornography at home is bad enough, someone who can convince himself that he can get away with it in public is a twisted individual…

    I suppose your “in a perfect world” argument is unfortunately true, it’s just mind-boggling to me that a higher supervisor didn’t step in to recognize how bogus it is to be fired for enforcing the law.

    Excellent food for thought though, thanks for the post.

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  2. I guess I’d say I’d agree with you and disagree with you.

    I agree that an employee should not be fired for making a phone call alerting authorities of someone watching child porn.

    I disagree with your assertion that “illegal is illegal” though. Even a cop could be asked to stall an arrest if there were some higher reasoning behind it (eg. forgo-ing arresting for a possession charge to uncover a trafficing ring).

    Bottom line is that managers/supervisors have the priviledge of making bad decisions. The good news is that they get to wear those bad decisions too. Process, in my view, matters alot.

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  3. I’m sorry, but this is a situation where no amount of policy or alleged librarian ethics come into play. If I see someone viewing child pornography on a computer — whether it’s at the library, at home, an Internet cafe, the police are getting a call immediately. Job be damned.

    It’s not a matter of immediate public danger, but a situation where children are being exploited and, yes, in serious trouble — even if they’re half way around the world. I believe in shades of gray, benefit of the doubt, and free speech. But anything endangering a child — and behavior that encourages the continuation/acceptance of such abuse — is a clear area of black and white.

    What bothers me is that librarians are even debating right or wrong in this situation. I agree that it’s an opportunity to reevaluate emergency procedures and what actual policies say, but the policies should say absolutely that viewing child pornography at the library is not allowed and grounds for immediate law enforcement involvement. Period. The fact that this librarian was fired is a disgrace, not only for the library system involved but librarians as a whole.

    I’m not very proud to be a librarian today, if you can’t tell.

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  4. Hey Stacey — I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree here. Making a call immediately or making a call 12 hours from the time of occurence is immaterial in this case in my view.

    I agree that libraries should have policies that empower their employees to make the phone call right away. I agree that this person should pay for his crime. I think accessing child porn is absolutely wrong and inexcusable.

    I disagree that the issue requires no fore-thought, merely because it is upsetting. In fact, it requires lots of forethought specifically because it is an upsetting scenario.

    Of course, this situation also highlights the importance of how the values of an organization matches your own. Clearly, if an organization is going to make you do (or not do) something you absolutely cannot live with, I think you need to move on from that organization. At the same time, I think someone can win simply by following the process in this case. Unlike some scenarios that have been discussed, this is not an “everything right now or nothing” situation. In fact, there are very few things in this world that are true “there’s no time to think before acting” emergencies.

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  5. “Clearly, if an organization is going to make you do (or not do) something you absolutely cannot live with, I think you need to move on from that organization.”

    You’re 100% right there and I think that’s the part that I overlooked. Communicators and PR folk will often bow out to salvage their own careers versus going down with the ship if their employer is up to no good. I suppose I can see your argument better while keeping that in mind.

    And really, kudos for staring controversy in the face!

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  6. Child pornography is NOT protected free speech. If you see someone looking at child porn in the library, call the police, they are committing a crime.

    If you see only the website and no patron, you can still report it to the FBI or Cyber Tip Line 800-843-5678.

    Would you call your supervisor if someone was stealing a car?

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  7. John: the question is not whether child pornography is illegal, or protected free speech. As stated above, I think libraries should have policies that empower employees to make the phone call.

    The question is whether one should disobey an order from a supervisor to report child pornography without due process, and whether an employer has the right to fire an employee under these circumstances.

    Let’s go with the car theft situation for a second, and assume the car theft happened in the library for some reason, so there is no ambiguity that the library [and not the employee as an individual citizen] would have to answer to the case.

    And let’s say that the car thief is a regular, and that person’s id is all nice and tight in the library database. Should you break confidentiality to report the crime? Nope. And the reasoning would be that you should not apply unethical means to achieve the positive outcome of catching a criminal.

    And that would apply doubly for an instance where you can have ethical means and a positive outcome as well.

    That said, more information has come out about this situation. For instance, I strongly disagree that the situation is “none of the cops’ business” (if that is, indeed, what the supervisor said). Frankly, I think the whole scenario is a big mess from all angles. It is a good case study on why clear internet policies are essential in a library environment.

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  8. “The question is whether one should disobey an order from a supervisor to report child pornography without due process, and whether an employer has the right to fire an employee under these circumstances.”

    First, I am confused by this notion that the library should have some sort of “due process.” I am not clear on what that would constitute that – proper chain of command or defied a supervisor? I would hate to think that you were implying that the library should investigate or attempt to determine the illegality of the material in question.

    Second, without a library union in place, the employer has no obligation to even have policy to determine how staff should be treated or what to expect from their employment. This is true of any organization, really. Without a organized bargining unit, library policy is absolutely not binding or even worth the paper it is printed on. So yes, the employer has every right to fire the employee, without justification or explaination.

    Thirdly, even with a union, there would be little hope that the employee will be reinstated.

    While library policy is not always the binding legal documents that we would like the Tulare County Library makes it pretty clear, that “ILLEGAL ACTS INVOLVING LIBRARY RESOURCES MAY BE SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION BY LOCAL, STATE OR FEDERAL OFFICIALS.” Public Internet Policy

    Plus, I think anyone would be hard pressed to assume or prove that a customer coming into a public building, such as a library, to use a public computer has any expectation of privacy. California library confidentiality law, nor really any state confidentiality law, covers customers’ when they log into a public computer.

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  9. First, I am confused by this notion that the library should have some sort of “due process.” I am not clear on what that would constitute that – proper chain of command or defied a supervisor? I would hate to think that you were implying that the library should investigate or attempt to determine the illegality of the material in question.

    I think it’s pretty obvious throughout the post, that “due process” in this case means “providing the employer with every possible chance to do the right thing.” In the end, it is the employer that would be responsible for any misdoing on the part of the employee. Again, this is a case of suspected/alleged illegal behavior, not an emergency. There is nothing illegal about failing immediately to inform police about suspected illegal behavior.

    I won’t bother with the rest because you are basically iterating the obvious. Of course it is fair to prosecute illegal behavior. Of course it is a good thing if employers have policies about how and when illegal behavior gets reported. Of course, some employers will not have such policies. Of course, unions are one way of influencing policy decisions in such a direction and so on.

    It’s all pretty much beside the point. It still stands, in my view, that a person should not just up and disobey a direct order from a supervisor over wanting to report illegal activity. There are always plenty of options to any employee in this situation and cooler heads ought to prevail always.

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  10. I have one comment on the following statement that you made:

    “Is there clear evidence of imminent public danger?
    Not likely. Watching child porn is a heinous crime and the creation of the porn is absolutely harmful to children. However, it does not put the public in imminent danger. Yes, we do not want these guys on our streets. No, we should not react to the child porn watcher as we do the rapist, robber, or murderer.”

    There IS actually imminent danger. Try doing a search on child molestations IN libraries. This is actually a result of internet porn. Offenders know they have a Free link to porn that you and I are paying for, at the local library. They go to the library, become stimulated by watching porn and then they may actually assault children in the bathroom or other locality around the park or maybe even fondle themselves in the library in front of children.

    The accessablity to porn, and at my expense, is not a freedom afforded by the constitution. It is a BREACH of freedom afforded by whatever governing body is allowing my tax dollars to support this crime. If people want to surf porn they may continue to have the freedom to do so in their own homes. As for child porn…this is illegal in ALL situations. None of the above should be available at the public library.

    There is no question that the librarian that lost her job made the right choice. I don’t have ALL the details regarding her being let go either…but I can tell you that it made me and the general public very disgusted.

    Thanks for listening.

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  11. Calie,

    I think you are putting alot into the false idea that libraries are a breeding ground for this sort of activity. They are not. Both child porn-watchers and molesters are more likely to do their crimes at home. The latter with children that know them well. Such crimes in libraries are no less rare than in any other public space.

    The theoretical possibility of more heinous crimes resulting from this incident is not the same as imminent danger.

    and my analysis is for the very same reasons you speak: accountability to taxpayers. Policy decisions were entrusted to a board of governors, not this staff person. If the staff person reacted without authority and made the wrong call — resulting in a libel suit, say. It’s the same tax dollars that would go down the drain as a result of this person’s actions.

    That said, I will resay that I think the supervisor and the organization was wrong in not calling the police right away. I also just think that the employee was also wrong to insubordinate. There were alot of better decisions that could have been made.

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  12. I agree with you in a sense that child pornography is illegal and the library should have some sort of policies regarding these issues. I also agree that there was no imminent pubic danger so the librarian should have waited.
    I agree with Ryan in regards to taking orders from superior. There is the personal reason and then there is the business policy.
    I think it was her choice when she disobeyed an order from her supervisor. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, if you disobey an order from your superior, you should face the consequences. She made the choice. This doesn’t mean she should have been fired from doing that. It’s not like she committed a crime to the employer, but just went with her gut.
    When something goes right or wrong, the boss pays the consequences. She shouldn’t have gotten fired, but maybe another disciplinary action.

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