Libraries in the Evergreen State may use Internet filters to prohibit access to pornographic Web sites, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled. The ruling is a setback for groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union who staunchly oppose Internet filters, claiming
First Amendment grounds.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, writing for the majority in a 6-3 decision on May 6, stated: “A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results…. It can make the same choices about Internet access.”
Taxpayer Rights vs. Free Access
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, believes the ACLU was wrong to say Washington’s community libraries using Internet filters would be a violation of free speech and be a denial of a right to access.
“The ACLU will try and spin this as a free-speech issue and a right-to-access issue, but personally I think that the Supreme Court in our state got it right,” he said. “No library is required to buy every book on the market. You can’t go to the library and sue it saying they do not have the book you want. Similarly, if a public library chooses to ban certain types of information available through their Internet terminals, through their computers, that is their right.”
Catherine Crump, a staff attorney at ACLU who argued the case, disagrees. She says public libraries, because they’re financially supported by the communities in which they exist, cannot prohibit patrons from visiting certain Web sites just because the community that is paying for the library disagrees with the values portrayed on those sites.
“The Constitution is to protect against those community sentiments. We had a case in a relatively conservative community where their library banned access to pro-gay speech while allowing access to anti-gay speech. This is not the role government is supposed to play regarding what content adults can access,” she said.
Concerned About Imperfections
Crump also says use of Internet filtering technologies risks excluding sites people should be able to access.
“The technology of Internet filtering is not very good,” Crump continued. “There are flaws in the filtering product.. One of our plaintiffs in this case was the Second Amendment Foundation because their Web site was initially blocked by the filtering program. Also, so was the Seattle Woman’s Orchestra…. Instead of using this flawed technology, there are now privacy screens available and other steps to avoid filtering.”
Ballots and Benches
Nixon points our opponents of filtering have an obvious alternative available. Instead of petitioning the courts to determine whether community libraries can or cannot use Internet filtering technology, he notes, the ACLU and other groups can instead try to elect to the local library an anti-filtering majority that will remove the technology from all its computers.
“To insist all information on the Internet must be available to public library patrons is, I think, a mistake,” he said. “People can replace the library board and [have] the filters removed if that is what they really want.”
Nonetheless, Crump intends to continue pursuing the issue through the courts.
“This case is by no means over,” said Crump. “It is now going to federal court—and what’s more, this is not actually a case about whether libraries can use Internet filtering software. This is a case about whether adults can request that that Internet filtering software be disabled. It is also about First Amendment rights and what type of content full-grown adults can see.
“We are optimistic that the federal court, operating under the federal constitution, [will] come to a different conclusion here,” she concluded.
Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.