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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Lets Public Library Block Websites

SPOKANE, Wash. (CN) - Three library patrons who claimed their rural library's Internet filter prevented them from researching issues such as teen smoking and gun rights lost their challenge to the library district, when a federal judge found the Internet policy did not violate the First Amendment.

The ACLU represented three rural Washingtonians in a 2006 federal lawsuit that claimed the North Central Regional Library District unconstitutionally blocked access to certain websites with a systemwide Internet filter.

The SmartFilter software used by the library blocked websites that it placed in categories such as "Tobacco," "Criminal Skills," "Dating/Social," and "Profanity," according to the complaint.

Plaintiff Sarah Bradburn said she was unable to research youth tobacco use for school assignments about drug addiction, and a Second Amendment advocacy group claimed the website for its sponsored magazine "Women & Guns" was blocked by the library's filter.

The North Central Regional Library District operates 28 libraries in the Eastern Washington counties of Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan.

For the library district to get federal funding, it "must restrict patrons' Internet access to obscene and child pornographic materials," based on the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), according to U.S. District Judge Edward O'Shea's summary of the case.

Shea ended the nearly 6-year-old case after finding the library district's Internet-filtering policy did not violate the First Amendment.

"Blocking Internet sites and pages that contain constitutionally protected material deemed suitable only for adults helps ensure that the environment at NCRL libraries is consistent with its mission of providing learning and research opportunities for individuals of all ages. This is a legitimate government interest," the judge wrote.

Shea found the library policy allowing patrons to request that the filter unblock certain sites is reasonable, and that the district "simply does not have the resources to have its staff review the vast and limitless amount of sites and pages on the Internet to determine whether they are consistent with its policies and mission."

"The Court acknowledges that this process may frustrate some adult patrons. However, without the funding provided by CIPA, NCRL likely could not provide Internet access to its patrons," the judge wrote.

"This would be a great disservice to the NCRL patrons, many of whom live in rural areas where reliable, affordably priced Internet access may be difficult to obtain."

The Washington Supreme Court reviewed the case in 2010, and found the library district's policy did not violate the state constitution.

The court's 6-3 majority ruled that libraries have the same kind of discretion over picking books as they do access to websites.

"A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results," Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote. "It can make the same choices about Internet access."

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