ACLU of Washington Will Continue to Be Vigilant for Internet Censorship in Public Libraries

News Release: 
Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The ACLU of Washington has decided not to appeal the April 10, 2012 ruling by the U.S. District Court in Spokane against library patrons’ challenge of the Internet filtering policy of a regional library system (Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District). Regrettably, the Court ruled that the Library’s policy of selectively unblocking particular websites or webpages for adult patrons upon request was sufficient to satisfy the law.

While the ACLU supports the American Library Association’s position that public libraries should not filter Internet content for patrons, the current facts in the case do not support an effective appeal. We will continue to oppose filtering that censors constitutionally protected reading material.

To uphold the freedom to read online, the ACLU of Washington filed suit in 2006 on behalf of four plaintiffs who were denied access to lawful materials on the Internet because of the North Central Regional Library District’s overly broad filtering policy. The policy hampered adults in researching school assignments, locating businesses and organizations, and doing personal reading on lawful subjects.

The plaintiffs included a college student seeking to research an academic assignment on tobacco use, a professional photographer seeking information on art galleries and health issues, and an area resident seeking access to a blog he maintained on MySpace. The other plaintiff was the nonprofit Second Amendment Foundation, whose magazine Women and Guns was blocked by the library’s filter.

The ACLU undertook this lawsuit because the open exchange of ideas and access to information are vital to our democratic society. The exchange of ideas is greatly enhanced when people have access to the vast amount of information on the Internet. Freedom is seriously compromised when the government takes it upon itself to decide what constitutionally protected materials people can and cannot read. Unlike with books and other printed materials, libraries are not limited by finances from providing the wealth of information available on the Internet. Such free access to the Internet is especially important for library patrons in rural areas, such as those served by North Central, who do not have as many options for obtaining information as are available in urban areas.

The lawsuit focused on the Library’s policy of refusing to unblock its Internet filter at the request of adult library patrons seeking access to speech that everyone – including the Library – agrees is constitutionally protected for adults. The lawsuit sought to have the Library temporarily disable the filter at a computer upon the request of individual adult library patrons. With proper placement of computers and use of screening, such a policy need not detract from the welcoming atmosphere that the Library strives to foster.

The decision not to appeal reflects, in part, the fact that the Library responded to the lawsuit by revising its filtering practices. Before the suit was filed, the Library blocked over 25 categories of websites concerning information relating to alcohol, dating, drugs, personal pages such as MySpace, YouTube, tobacco, and many other sites containing constitutionally protected speech. Since 2007, however, in response to the lawsuit the Library has limited the categories of websites that it blocks to those that contain sexually explicit content, promote illegal activities, or threaten the security of its computer system.

The ACLU commends the Library for the steps it has taken to narrow the range of materials that it refuses to let its patrons see. Still, the Library’s filtering policy remains overbroad and the Library continues to filter constitutionally protected materials. Many libraries around the country (including rural library districts similar to the North Central Regional Library District) do not use filters at all, and many of those that use filters disable them on request or via a mouse click.

The ACLU of Washington will continue to look carefully at censorship activities by library districts in Washington. Public libraries in Washington should not regard the Court’s ruling as a license to filter with impunity. Should another district seek to deny library patrons access to broader categories of speech, the ACLU of Washington will take appropriate action to protect their constitutional rights.