Library Censorship - Same Old Issue, New Medium

Mar 07, 2008
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

San Jose and Sacramento are currently debating whether to censor access to internet information at their libraries. The internet has become a pivotal means of accessing information at the library and with its growth in importance, the age-old issues of library censorship have followed.

To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and Heather Has Two Mommies are just a small selection of material that some have tried to keep off library shelves because the content made them "uncomfortable." But it has always been the duty of the library to offend a few in order to ensure that all have a means to be truly educated about the many sides of an issue.

Children's librarian Dorothy Broderick says that every library in the country ought to have a sign on the door reading: "This library has something offensive to everyone. If you are not offended by something we own, please complain."

But now, the ability of libraries to foster knowledge and tolerance is again being threatened. Some local legislators are citing minuscule problems with library users accessing sexually explicit internet sites as an excuse to impose internet filtering and restrictive use policies that will keep essential health, LGBT information, and political information out of reach for many.

The facts are that there were only 13 complaints in the last year out of 2- million internet sessions in San Jose and 24 complaints total in three years out of more than 3 million internet sessions in Sacramento.

It is well-acknowledged that filtering is not able to effectively block all sexually explicit sites, while at the same time improperly blocking access to important information.

Reports by Kaiser, Consumer Reports, and the Free Expression Policy Project have all found that filters improperly block important websites about health, sex education, civil rights, and politics.

A recent test by the San Jose Public Libraries of three software filtering programs again found substantial overblocking. Specific sites that were inaccurately blocked included WebMD and the American Urological Association; a World War II history site; (one of the largest Spanish-language broadcasters); Victims of Pornography (an anti-pornography support group); and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian Gays- an LGBT support and advocacy group).

The filters also blocked access to information in the library's Health and Wellness Resource Center database, its World Book Encyclopedia online, and even the library's own online catalog of available books.

In San Jose, internet access at the libraries will likely be debated at the beginning of April. If you live or work in San Jose, please contact councilmembers and send your thoughts to the library.

Last year, the Authority Board of the Sacramento Public Library voted to revise its Internet Use & Access Policy, mandating the automatic use of filters on library terminals and instructing library staff to ask users to stop viewing constitutionally protected material if the subject matter "would interfere with the maintenance of a safe, welcoming, and comfortable environment."

The Board is going to review its current policy at its March 27, 2008 meeting. If you live or work in Sacramento, contact the Library Authority Board and urge them to support open access and repeal the policy.

To read more about the legal and policy issues regarding filtering, please see our letters to the San Jose City Council and Sacramento Public Library Authority Board.

The ACLU of Washington State is also currently litigating a library filtering case. For more information about the case and to read the legal documents, visit here.

If the issue of library internet access comes to your neighborhood, please help maintain open access. Contact us for more information about how to fight library censorship.