Citizens Oppose Censoring Internet in Libraries

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

Cyberspace is the latest frontier for battles over censorship. Around the state, right-wing groups are demanding that public libraries install filters to "protect" people from sexually explicit materials on the Internet. The ACLU has long resisted such efforts to limit access to information, whether that information comes in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, or the Internet. Individuals and their families — not the government — should be the ones to decide what materials they can view in cyberspace. Furthermore, filtering programs typically screen out valuable information about abortion, AIDS prevention, and other topics.

With the help of ACLU activists, the Timberland Regional Library Board rebuffed a campaign to impose mandatory filters on public library computers in a five-county area in southwest Washington. The regional library had come under attack from anti-porn crusaders demanding mandatory filtering software on every Internet terminal in its 27 library branches. ACLU members mobilized to attend a critical library board meeting, and several spoke out against the censorship threat. The board adopted an approach affirming that parents are ultimately responsible for what their children view on library computers. Parents will be able to designate whether their children can use filtered or unfiltered Internet terminals throughout the library. Similarly, ACLU Kitsap Chapter members opposed limits on Internet access at the Kitsap Regional Library. The drive for restrictions stalled as the library system provided both filtered and unfiltered computer terminals and emphasized that parents are responsible for their children’s use of the Internet at the library.

In the Yakima Valley, elected officials led the censorship crusade, pressuring the regional library system to install mandatory filters in its 19 branches under threat of losing public funds for not doing so. After numerous meetings and public hearings, the Yakima library board crafted a policy supported by the ACLU whereby both filtered and unfiltered terminals are available. Parents of minor children are required to sign an agreement with the library designating whether their children can use filtered or unfiltered terminals. This was the solution adopted by a Virginia library after a landmark 1998 case (in which the ACLU participated) in which a federal court struck down its policy of mandatory filters as a violation of the First Amendment.

Disgruntled mayors in Selah and Zillah then threatened to close their towns’ branches unless the library implemented mandatory filtering for adults and minors alike. In response, Selah citizens formed the Committee to Save our Library, a grassroots action group which consulted with the ACLU and rallied opposition to filtering. By the end of the spring of 2000, mayors in both towns had backed down.