Missouri Library Under Fire for Internet Filters

Published January 27, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit in January against Salem, Missouri and the town’s Library Board in federal court, claiming the library unconstitutionally blocked access to Web sites related to Wicca, Native American, and other religions.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Anaka Hunter, who says she tried to research non- and pre-Christian religions on library computers but the library’s Internet filtering software blocked the Web sites as “occult” or “criminal skills.” Salem is a small town with a population of 5,000 residents, located about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Hunter complained to the library director, who unblocked some but not all of the information. She also complained to the library board, but the board dismissed her concerns.

Federal law requires public libraries to use filtering software that blocks access to sites with explicit, pornographic, and adult content. The Salem library went too far, though, in blocking information about religion, the ACLU argues.

Content-Neutral Filters Constitutional
Alan Howard, a First Amendment expert at Saint Louis University Law School, says the U.S. Supreme Court has decided in at least one case that public libraries may deploy Internet filters.

“A majority of the Court characterized the Internet in libraries as analogous to the library’s bookshelf,” Howard said. “Just as the library can pick and choose which books to place upon its shelves, the Court ruled that they may also pick and choose which Web sites to make available in the library.”

Howard says the First Amendment grants libraries discretion on what books to buy for their collections. However, he adds, if library employees refuse to purchase a book for their collection on ideological principles, they’ve violated the Constitution.

Howard added, “Filters as such are not unconstitutional; if a filter is content-neutral, then libraries can implement them.”

Disabling Mechanism for Adults
Shawn Healy, resident scholar and director of professional development for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, says the Supreme Court has already weighed in on this issue.

“Their view is that library Internet filters, when applied to children, for instance in a school library, are constitutional. This is to protect them from objectionable and obscene material such as pornography. However, as applied to adults, a disabling mechanism must be applied to the Internet filter so that if the patron asks the librarian to turn it off, they can view the subject they are pursuing,” he said.

“I suspect this sort of thing is quite frequent, but often goes unreported or does not rise to the level of media coverage the Salem case has generated,” he said.

Err for Information Freedom
The Salem case, said David Roland, director of litigation at the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri, is a violation of the First Amendment.
“It’s not uncommon for libraries in smaller towns or school libraries to engage in this behavior,” said Roland. “What will happen is some patrons or parents will be critical of certain material and ask the library to ban it or lock it away in a special room or collection away from the general public,” he said.

“The courts have told libraries that they have the right to censor obscene material such as hard-core pornography, and they have the right to remove patrons when they’re viewing it in the library. The problem is that by installing Internet filters on library computers, they’re casting their net wide enough to filter other subjects such as religion. The courts have ruled so far that libraries should err on the side of information freedom and they should cast the net more narrowly,” Roland added.

Barbara M. Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, says this type of Internet filtering happens often in both rural and urban libraries.

“Just because you or I don’t want to read Wiccan material doesn’t mean our neighbor doesn’t want to read Wiccan material, which is protected by the First Amendment,” said Jones.

‘Ideas and Free Expression’
Libraries do have discretion, however. “The courts think a library has the right not to carry books,” Roland added. “This means that you don’t have the right to demand that they do. Also, the library does not have the right to deny an interlibrary loan request from another library with that book,” he explained.

Jones argues against the use of filters. ‘”The problem is no filter is as good as the human brain,” she said. “Libraries are installing filters on the Internet to protect themselves legally and to protect their patrons from harmful, inappropriate material, but in so doing, they’re sometimes inhibiting our ability to conduct research. The example I often give about Internet filters is ‘breast cancer.’ Many people need to search for health information on this subject, and of course the filter blocks any search with [the term] breast in it,” she said.

According to S.T. Karnick, research director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes InfoTech & Telecom News, communities ought to be able to decide what their tax dollars support.

“If the community doesn’t want their library to provide access to certain kinds of Web pages, shouldn’t they have the right to decide that?” asked Karnick. “The public and their representatives who run the library are under no obligation whatsoever to provide such access if they don’t want to,” he said.

“Why should an individual be able to tell the library what they can and cannot provide?” Karnick added. “This lawsuit is a blow against the people’s control of what their tax dollars are spent on and what services they will provide.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.