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Internet filtering at public libraries walks a fine line

Post by Kim Bradford on May 6, 2010 at 7:07 pm with No Comments »
May 6, 2010 6:09 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Legality should not be confused with good public policy. Case in point: The seal of constitutionality the state Supreme Court granted a library district’s overzealous Internet filter on Thursday.

In a 6-3 decision, the court blessed the five-county North Central Regional Library District’s blanket use of Internet filters on library computers. The majority ruled that filtering adult patrons’ Internet access is not a violation of the state constitution’s free speech protections.

The court’s analysis may well be correct. No less than the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that libraries have a legitimate interest in filtering Internet content to protect minors from pornography. Under federal law, libraries are required to take such steps to receive federal assistance.

But the federal law – and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld it – was predicated on the idea that libraries could disable filters for adult patrons upon request.

In the 2003 high court decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy predicted in a concurring opinion that roadblocks to disabling filters could form the basis for an “as-applied” First Amendment challenge to the federal law.

State Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers, writing for the minority in Thursday’s decision, argued that Kennedy was not alone in finding the ability of a library patron to disable the filter constitutionally critical. Four justices mentioned the condition explicitly, and four others strongly hinted at it.

The North Central district doesn’t make such allowances. It permits adult patrons to request exceptions, but they are decided on a case-by-case basis and only occasionally granted.

The library district’s filter also happens to be hypersensitive. Among the blocks cited by plaintiffs were a website encouraging individuals to commit random acts of kindness, the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra, a crisis pregnancy counseling service and Women & Guns magazine.

The district has restored access to some of the erroneously blocked sites. Indeed, Chambers’ fellow justices in the majority seemed to take comfort in the fact that library users can request manual overrides.

But the district’s process is a sorry substitute for unfettered access. The district received 92 requests to unblock access over a nearly five-month period; the majority took a day or more to decide. By then, the patron had gone home and may have faced another long drive to the library to view the released websites.

One plaintiff in the case, a Republic woman taking classes at Eastern Washington University, ended up driving to Spokane to get information on youth tobacco use.

If Chambers is right, such restrictions could become an issue as the case returns to federal court to face the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidelines. At the very least, North Central’s policy begs a reconsideration on policy grounds.

Technology isn’t fool-proof, but library officials should provide a quicker work-around when their filter blocks access to legitimate information. It may be constitutional to frustrate patrons’ online searches, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

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