The summer of 2010 brought the start of an interesting chapter in the life of a young resident of Salem, Missouri. Anaka Hunter was attempting to research information about Native American tribes and their associated spirituality. She went to her local public library and began searching online using one of the public computers. According to the complaint, many of the sites she attempted to access were blocked by the system employed by the library to filter out potentially dangerous topics from children. Those labeled as “occult” or “criminal skills” despite the fact that they were neither.
Ms. Hunter approached the library’s director and one of the defendant’s, Glenda Wofford. She requested that the websites she needed to be made accessible. Initially, Director Wofford is supposed to have simply stated that she had no control over it, sites were regulated by the internet filtering program the library uses. Hunter asked if a website offering information about “prominent Native American women” could be unblocked. The response was for Hunter to be given limited access (specifically to just one page of that website). When she again took it up with Wofford it was found that she essentially had power to set the system to prevent the viewing of topics she viewed as dangerous or inappropriate. She went on to say that she only lifts the block for job-relevant sites, topic of research paper or if she deemed their necessity legitimate.
CIPA requires that libraries maintain a policy and ICF systems to prevent children from accessing “visual depictions” that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors. This library, like all other public libraries in Missouri, is also obligated to comply with MO. REV. STAT § 182.827.3. which requires that libraries “limit minors’ ability to gain access to material that is pornographic for minors.” You will note that there is no mention of “criminal skill” or “the occult”. According to the complaint, neither of the sites she was trying to visit fell under the category of “pornographic.”
The ICF system chosen by this library was called Netsweeper. This program assigns websites to various categories, including adult image, criminal skills, extreme, general, IWF (those tagged by the Internet Watch Foundation potentially contain images of child abuse), occult, pornography, and religion. All settings are pre-programmed but are quick and easy to change with little effort. Follows is a list of some of the sites she was attempting to visit:
So, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri sued on Hunter’s behalf, claiming this violated Hunter’s First Amendment rights, and a federal judge agreed. Daniel Mach (Director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief chapter of the ACLU) said in a statement that: “Public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”
Everyday in little ways all across the country little incidences of censorship like this happen. Individually, they don’t really mean anything, unless you are the student attempting to research a topic that someone else has already deemed “scary” or “dangerous.”