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Don't Restrict Adults to Protect Kids

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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March 18, 2009

(Originally posted on The Agonist.)

There are few cases addressing whether libraries may block patrons’ access to portions of the Internet. An ACLU of Washington case that will be before the Washington State Supreme Court this spring raises this issue, and is a case to watch. We recently filed our brief in the case, and just received word that the Court will hear argument on June 23.

At stake is whether libraries are free to use Internet filtering software to block adults’ access to constitutionally protected speech. The defendant, a consortium of 23 public libraries, has a policy of blocking access to all speech it considers inappropriate for children. One of our clients, the gun rights group the Second Amendment Foundation, joined the lawsuit because the libraries went so far as to block all websites about firearms, including one of the advocacy organization’s own websites.

In the name of protecting kids, the library has blocked access to a great deal of speech that is indisputably protected by both the Washington and federal constitutions. Other clients in the case are adult patrons of the libraries whose efforts to do research online have been frustrated by the libraries’ filter. For example, Sarah Bradburn was prevented from accessing websites about youth tobacco usage that she needed to complete a school assignment.

What our clients want the library to do is to honor requests by adult patrons to turn off the filter to allow sessions of uncensored reading and research. This case is not about whether libraries have to allow children to access all of the Internet. It is also not about whether libraries can have filtering be the default at computer terminals. Nor is this a case about materials that are obscene—no one is challenging the libraries’ right to prohibit access to this content, which is already against the law. The only question in this case is whether patrons can request that the filter be temporarily turned off so they can access protected speech.

Our argument is straightforward: it is impermissible for libraries to reduce adults to reading only what is appropriate for children. A half century ago, the United States Supreme Court held in Butler v. Michigan that government may not “reduce the adult population . . . to reading only what is fit for children.” On that ground, the Court invalidated a conviction under a Michigan law that criminalized the distribution of literature that could have “a potentially deleterious influence upon youth.”

The Washington State Supreme Court has been asked to rule on the basis of the Washington State Constitution, but we think the same principle applies. Libraries are supposed to facilitate patrons’ own efforts to broaden their horizons, not limit patrons to approved topics. Libraries must disable the filter at the request of adults to allow them to access protected speech.

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