March 5, 2013

In a consent judgment signed March 5, a federal district court-ordered the Salem Public Library to stop blocking patrons’ access to websites related to minority religions that the library’s web filters classified as “occult” or “criminal.” Blocking access to material based solely on viewpoint is a violation of the First Amendment.

Judge E. Richard Webber entered the judgment in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri on behalf of a Salem resident who was blocked from researching websites discussing minority religions’ ideas about death or death rituals.

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU-EM.

The resident had originally protested to library director Glenda Wofford about not being able to access websites about Native American religions and the Wiccan faith. While portions of the sites were unblocked, 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 added that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities. The resident’s attempts to complain about the policy to the library board of trustees were brushed off.

“We are happy to see an end to the library’s discriminatory Internet practices,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”

The consent judgment is available on the legal dockets page.

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