Home Court Says Internet Filtering in Public Libraries Not Censorship

Court Says Internet Filtering in Public Libraries Not Censorship

A Washington state supreme court issued a decision yesterday supporting a public library’s decision to fully filter Internet content, stating that such filtering could be considered “collection development”.

According to an article in Library Journal, the decision is the first of its kind and “may lead some libraries to adopt more stringent Internet filtering policies.”

The disturbing part of this decision lies in the fact that more than 75 million people rely on the library for Internet access and, as a report by the University of Washington pointed out last March, the public library has become “a critical digital hub”.

The decision answers the question of “Whether a public library […] may filter Internet access for all patrons without disabling the filter to allow access to Web sites containing constitutionally-protected speech upon the request of an adult library patron.” Of the nine judges issuing the opinion, only three offered a dissent.

“The plaintiffs’ claims of overbreadth, prior restraint, and that NCRL’s Internet filtering policy is an impermissible content-based restriction all fail to account for this traditional and long-standing discretion to select what materials will be included in a public library’s collection,” the court writes in its opinion.

According to those judges agreeing with the opinion, “The reason is simple: in determining the makeup of their collections, public libraries have limited resources, including computers; some libraries in this case have only one or two. Public libraries may determine — by filter — among the vast sea of educational and informational materials which materials are appropriate for the libraries’ collections. “

The dissenting opinion acknowledges that “the vast majority of what the censor catches is low value speech” but that “The filter should be removed on the

request of an adult patron. Concerns that a child might see something unfortunate

on the screen must be dealt with in a less draconian manner.”

Treating the Internet as if it were a part of the printed collection does indeed have a draconian feel to it, as it disregards the general real-time nature of information in modern society. Though the ruling decides that the filtering does not constitute a form of prior restraint, it acknowledges that filter removal can, at times, take until the next day if not longer. While this may seem reasonable, should one person have less access to information than another, simply because they rely on the public library as a point of information rather than purchasing it on their own?

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