ACLU Asks Court to Stop Missouri Library From Illegally Censoring Websites
Salem Library Ignored Requests to Remove Web Filter to Avoid Liability for Unconstitutional Viewpoint-Based Censorship
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ST. LOUIS – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri today filed a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library and its board of trustees with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites discussing minority religions by improperly classifying them as “occult” or “criminal.”
Salem resident Anaka Hunter contacted the ACLU after she was unable to access websites pertaining to Native American religions or the Wiccan faith for her own research. After protesting to the library director, Glenda Wofford, portions of the sites were unblocked, but much remained censored. Wofford said she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these 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. “It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.”
Hunter’s attempts to complain about the policy to the library board of trustees were brushed off.
Other sites blocked by the library’s Netsweeper software include the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry pertaining to Wicca, Astrology.com and The Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains viewpoint-neutral discussions of various cultures’ and religions’ ideas of death and death rituals.
“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,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The library is the last place that should be censoring information about different cultures.”
Libraries that receive federal grants are required by federal law to install filtering software that blocks sexually explicit material that is obscene, child pornography or meets the definition of "harmful to minors." But the library’s software went further and blocked any site marked as “occult,” and classified sites related to Native American culture and Wiccan faith in the blocked category “criminal skills.” None of these sites could be construed as having the kind of offensive content prohibited by law.
“The library has no business blocking these websites as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal’ in the first place 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.”
More information on this case can be found at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/hunter-v-salem-public-library-board-trustees