Today, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that it is perfectly acceptable for a library to filter content on their Internet connections as they see fit. Six of nine justices agreed that libraries have discretion as to what Internet content to allow, just as they have control over what books they will offer. This ruling comes after a lawsuit that was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in 2006 against the North Central Regional Library District in Eastern Washington.
There were three plaintiffs in this landmark case: a woman who was trying to research tobacco use by young people, a photographer who wasn’t allowed to check out videos on YouTube or research certain health issues, and a man who wasn’t able to access his own public blog or information relating to gun use by licensed hunters. Any library who receives federal money to provide Internet access is required to have the ability to keep underage patrons from accessing pornography and other sites that could be detrimental. The NCRL receives such government grants, and has filters beyond those required of them. This includes the blocking of content about computer hacking, gambling and personal ads on Craigslist, among other subjects.
“A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results,” wrote the majority, led by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. “It can make the same choices about Internet access.” The ruling also stated that libraries could provide access to individual websites if requested by an adult without having to completely remove their Internet filters.
The dissenting votes, led by Justice Tom Chambers, argues that this ruling restricts constitutionally protected speech. He stated that a library choosing to censor the Internet is not the same as declining to purchase a particular book that the institution feels to be inappropriate. “It is more like refusing to circulate a book that is in the collection based on its content.” He feels that the entire filter should be removed if an adult requests it because the government “has no interest in protecting adults from constitutionally protected materials on the Internet. Concerns that a child might see something unfortunate on the screen must be dealt with in a less draconian manner,” he wrote.
What are your thoughts on this? Should a library be allowed to decide which types of websites and contents they will allow on their machine? This case will now be taken to the federal court level, and it will be interesting to see what happens. I’ve always been a proponent of having open access to anything we choose online. However, I can certainly understand why that isn’t viable in some settings and circumstances.