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Quest to Set Information Free Continues in the Technology Era

Diane Balogh,
ACLU of Eastern Missouri
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October 4, 2012

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and calls attention to the wealth of creative expression that is stifled when books can be barred from library shelves. The ACLU has always believed that our country functions best when citizens exercise their right to freely explore the world around them, and we’ll be blogging about banned books and censorship all week. Join the conversation using #IReadBannedBooks.

Book banning still makes headlines, but today the practice seems pretty old school. As we touched on yesterday, the 21st century form of censorship has now become Internet filtering. Who needs a bonfire when technology can do your dirty work?

In the past year alone, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri has had two high-profile cases involving blocked websites caused by overzealous administrators and filtering software. While similar, the cases are disturbing in their own ways.

The Lake of the Ozarks’ Camdenton R-III School District in Missouri had been using software on school computers that blocked many websites advocating equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, while comparable anti-gay websites were not blocked. Thanks to the ACLU, Camdenton students no longer have to contend with this unconstitutional bias. A United States District judge ordered the school district to stop using the discriminatory filter and in a March consent judgment the district was ordered to stop blocking pro-LGBT sites, submit to monitoring for 18 months, and pay $125,000 in legal fees and costs. We’ll be keeping an eye on Camdenton.

Meanwhile, just three counties east, a similar problem was brewing in Salem, Missouri. The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires public libraries to employ Internet filtering software to block children from viewing obscene visual depictions, child pornography and images that are harmful to minors. However, Salem Public Library officials decided to go beyond the law and censor any websites that its filtering software provider, Netsweeper, categorized as pertaining to the occult or criminal skills. This prevented library users from accessing information about minority religions, yoga, meditation and astrology. Well, sort of. They could still find sites discussing some of these subjects from a mainstream religious viewpoint. For example, Wikipedia’s page on the Wiccan church was blocked, while the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Paganism popped right open.

Anaka Hunter, a Salem Public Library patron researching indigenous American tribes and their spirituality, asked that sites about Native American cultural and religious history and the Wiccan Church be unblocked. She was told by the library director that there was nothing that could be done because the filtering system determined which websites library patrons could view. Yet, when Anaka later asked the director to unblock a site pertaining to the lives of prominent Native American women, the director was able to unblock a single page of the site. When this discrepancy was pointed out, the director admitted that she only allows people to view blocked websites if it pertains to their job, if they are writing a paper, or if she determines that they have another legitimate reason to view the content. The director added that she had an obligation to call the proper authorities to report those who attempted to access blocked sites, if she thought they would misuse the information they were seeking. Talk about a chilling effect. After unsuccessfully seeking help from the library’s board of trustees, Anaka quit using the library and contacted the ACLU, rather than risk being reported to the local police.

In January the ACLU filed a complaint in the federal court on Anaka’s behalf. The case is still going on.

By the way, the Lake of the Ozarks’ Camdenton R-III School District and the Salem Public Library Board of Trustees each received one of the nine Jefferson Muzzles awarded in 2012. These dubious awards are presented every year around April 13—the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth—by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression to those who have committed egregious or ridiculous affronts to free expression in the previous year.

If you encounter any onerous filters in your public school or library, please report them to your local ACLU affiliate. You never know — they could be a future winner of the not-so-coveted Jefferson Muzzles.

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