The American Civil Liberties Union, together with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, has launched a legal battle challenging the Salem Public Library and its board of trustees for, they claim, unconstitutionally blocking access to websites discussing minority religions by classifying them as “occult” or “criminal.”
The case came about after Salem resident Anaka Hunter contacted the ACLU after she was unable to access websites on Native American and Wiccan cultural and religious ideas at the Salem Public Library. She protested to the library director, Glenda Wofford, and portions of the sites were unblocked, but much remained censored.
Indeed, Hunter alleges that Wofford said she would only allow access to the restricted sites if users had what she viewed as a legitimate reason to view the content, going on to say that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view such sites to the authorities.
“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,” Hunter said in an ACLU statement. “It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.”
When Hunter went to the library’s board of trustees she claims her complaint was brushed off.
Sites blocked by the library’s Netsweeper software include the official webpage of the Wiccan church, a Wikipedia entry pertaining to Wicca, Astrology.com, and The Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains what is described as a “neutral” discussion of various religious and cultural ideas on death and death rituals.
Libraries are of course required by federal law to implement filtering software that prevents access to explicit, pornographic and “adult” content. However the library’s software goes further than this and blocks sites marked “occult,” while sites related to Native American culture and Wiccan faith were, the ACLU found, blocked under the category of “criminal skills” — though none of the websites contained any such information.
“Rather than dismissing the concerns of its patrons, the library should make every effort to ensure that its filtering software doesn’t illegally deny access to educational resources on discriminatory grounds,” Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, is quoted as saying. “The library is the last place that should be censoring information about different cultures.”
In a comment made to the Hill, the library’s director Glenda Wofford said she would have been happy to unblock the websites but Hunter refused to specify which sites she wanted to access. “It’s not our intent to prohibit reasonable use of the Internet for research or any other legitimate reason,” Wofford is quoted as saying. “All they have to do is ask, and we’ll unblock the sites.”
However, the ACLU is contending that patrons should not have to ask to access these sites as they contain no illegal material:
“The library has no business blocking these websites as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal’ in the firstplace and certainly shouldn’t be making arbitrary follow-up decisions based on the personal predilections of library staff,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Public libraries should be facilitating access to educational information, not blocking it.”