I work on occasion from my local public library, a wonderful spot with huge glass windows overlooking an attached park. The views are nice, the quiet is terrific, and the free WiFi is indispensable. But the Internet connectivity comes with limits, in the form of a content filter that periodically prevents me from accessing research materials. Infuriating, yes. But illegal?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has just filed a complaint (PDF) on behalf of a Salem, Missouri resident named Anaka Hunter, who contends that the Salem public library is unconstitutionally blocking her ability to access information on "minority" religious views. Federal and state law both govern libraries in Missouri, which are generally ordered to block access to obscene online material and child pornography. But the Salem library allegedly goes far beyond the mandate.
The library's "Netsweeper" content filtering system can block a huge variety of material, from porn to P2P to "occult" to "criminal skills," but it's up to the institution to choose which content categories will get filtered. Hunter claims that while looking into Native American and Wiccan religious practices, she was repeatedly halted by the filter's "occult" and "criminal skills" categories. When she complained, she says that the library staff wasn't especially helpful. According to the ACLU complaint:
Hunter raised the issue of filtering again with [head librarian] Wofford and stated that she thought the filtering of the websites she sought to view was improper and the classification of Native American cultural and religious history and practices as the “occult” and “criminal skills” was misleading and derogatory.Wofford responded that it was up to the filtering system which websites library patrons could view and that she only allows people to view blocked websites if it pertains to their job, if they are writing a paper, or if she determined that they otherwise have a legitimate reason to view the content.Wofford additionally asserted that she had an “obligation” to call the “proper authorities” to report those who were attempting to access blocked sites if she thought they would misuse the information they were attempting to access.
Hunter then took her complaint to the library's board but didn't get much further.
Hunter attended a meeting of the Board of Trustees for the Salem Library on November 8, 2010. At the meeting, she voiced her concerns about the filtering and the policies, practices, and customs that block religious content based upon its viewpoint.After Hunter described her experiences and outlined her complaints, a board member asked if Hunter whether she thought the Board or Library staff are prejudiced.Hunter did not answer directly, responding simply that she thought the filtering was unfair.A member of the Board responded that the Library’s Internet Content Filtering (“ICF”) system would not change, adding, “If that’s all, we have business to discuss.”
The blocklist included things like Wikipedia's page on "Wicca" (which currently notes that "This religion is AWESOME!!"), the official Wicca page (wicca.org), and the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. The complaint notes that Christian discussions about pagan and occult practices were not blocked.
Hunter and the ACLU claim that these blocks go far beyond what is required by law, and they have "created a substantial budren on Plaintiff's access to speech protected by the First Amendment." In addition, the complaint charges that the government is "promoting and favoring some religious viewpoints over others."
In a statement, Hunter blasted the library. "It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint," she said. "It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information."