Occult Internet Filter Dropped at Missouri Library in Settlement

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 6, 2013 — 9 Comments

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press are both reporting that a consent judgment has been handed down in the case of Hunter v. Salem Public Library Board of Trustees, in which Salem, Missouri resident Anaka Hunter was denied access to websites dealing with Wiccan and Native American customs due to the filtering software being used by the library. In addition, Hunter reported that she was “brushed off” and intimidated by library employees and board members. The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, says that the library agrees to remove the “occult” filter, among others, for library patrons. The ACLU, who represented Anaka Hunter, noted that “public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”

Salem Public Library

Salem Public Library

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures.”  – Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri

The Wild Hunt covered this issue extensively last year when the ACLU filed their lawsuit against the library, at the time I explored the long, strange history of Internet filtering services and how many of them contain filters that remove minority and alternative religious viewpoints in deference to their (then) largely Christian user base.

“The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the“constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.” 

Any library that receives federal funds is obligated to install Internet filtering software under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). However, that filter is only supposed to block only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors.” Sadly, either through ignorance of what various filter groupings contain, or misplaced (and illegal) paternalism, some libraries “overblock” the Internet stymieing open information and free inquiry. This was exactly the scenario warned of by critics of CIPA, and other advocated of an open and free Internet.

shutterstock 41035354

“Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards.” – Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

This victory comes at a time when Pagan religions are emerging from their classification as “alternative,” or “occult” belief systems, as evidenced by the Book Industry Study Group’s decision to reclassify books on Wicca and modern Paganism as belonging in the Religion section rather than the Body, Mind, & Spirit (aka Occult) section (not to mention the fact that the University of Missouri lists the Wiccan Sabbats in it’s Guide to Religion). Still, even if Wicca and other faiths were unpopular, reviled, and relegated to non-religious categories, it would not change the fact that no belief system should be filtered by our government, under any circumstance. The adoption of Internet filters are supposed to protect children from pornography and harmful material, not keep adults from doing research. There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided.

My only regret at this decision is that it won’t create new precedent in which we can use to stop other public institutions from over-blocking Internet search results. We need to change the very filtering industry itself, which is, as a whole, mostly unresponsive, secretive about their databases, and grudging to change. That many of the filtering companies who provide their software to libraries here also provide that same software to oppressive governments overseas is an irony that should not be lost on us. A first step towards greater freedoms is the destruction of the “occult” filter, an outdated and discriminatory filter created by the fearful. The decision handed down today in Missouri is a small step towards that goal.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Yes, it is a pity that settlements create no precedents and the “occult” category is still out there, but we’ve still earned our victory lap. Huzzah!
    Though it’s not a precedent, documentation from the settlement can be plopped onto the desk of the Head Librarian and the Board President if this crops up elsewhere in a public system. IIRC TWH covered a case recently where the LLL got a settlement in some dispute just by showing up and promising a fight. This settlement is a tool in that kind of undertaking, and it’s got the ACLU’s fingerprints.
    Will we ever be able to expunge the “occult” filtration category? Color me pessimistic. Remember, the roots of filtration are in Christian housholds who accepted it as a second-“best” choice when their preference, Internet censorship, didn’t fly. As a former follower of that general field (among others) for a living, I can envison the corporate structure of such a niche sotfware specialist. The distinction between the public library and the private household is primarily one of marketing and secondarily of letting marketing needs drive product modification. IMHO the best we can hope for is a clear firewall within the entity as regards the “occult” category, but it will take more victories like this before enough public library boards start to tell the providers, “We don’t want that category in the toolkit of our library staff and will not accept product that includes it.” That’s a long game.

    • Kenneth

      I also don’t see a pressing need for a legal precedent in this matter. Sure, it would have been nice, but I don’t think this was a controversial point in law with big implications, like some of the issues surrounding the prison chaplaincy or the headstone issue.

      I don’t see a lot of libraries digging their heels in for a long fight where this is concerned. Library boards don’t have the budgets or stomachs for prolonged legal fights, and librarians really hate being characterized as censors. I suspect most places still filtering “occult” probably don’t realize the legal ramifications of appearing to favor one religion over others. We have, if not a precedent, a good template for how to make a big stink about the issue should that become necessary. What it will take is all of us to keep an eye out in our local areas and address the matter as needed .

  • welltemperedwriter

    As a librarian I wholeheartedly support this result. Too many of those in my profession who should don’t really know how the filtering software works or what it’s filtering. It’s amazing how often even the vendors themselves don’t know–or claim not to, anyway.

    • ambermoone

      I too am a librarian who supports this result. I am very proud that my own institution does nothing like this.

  • Charles Cosimano

    There is a route that should be considered and that is bypassing the libraries, who, after all, are the consumers of the product, and taking legal action against the filter makers for religious discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It may seem like a reach, but if it were successful and a couple of the filtering software companies forced out of business by the legal costs, the effect would be far greater.

  • This is not just libraries, this is also public hotspots like Panera Bread, which blocks the Witch School Site. It was realized when some of us went to have a business meeting in 2009, and while we wanted to look at the site we could not reach it. It also has happened at airports such as Logan International. This is not simply a library problem, it is a public access problem. In this process we were asked to consider a lawsuit against Panera, because we gained standing but the cost was prohibitive. So to think in anyway this is simply libraries but a much wider umbrella.

    • Ursyl

      I’ve run into this issue at the dealership where we take our cars for maintenance. I made a complaint, and last time I had occasion to go online, I could come here.

      Some places do listen.

  • this happened a couple of years ago in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama):


    Lawyers at the National Secular Society said the move by Birmingham City
    Council was “discriminatory” and they would consider legal action.

    The rules also ban sites that promote witchcraft, the paranormal, sexual deviancy and criminal activity.

    The city council declined to comment on the possible legal action, but
    said the new system helped make it easier for managers to monitor staff
    web access.

    The authority’s Bluecoat WebFilter computer system allows staff to look
    at websites relating to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other
    religions but blocks sites to do with “witchcraft or Satanism” and
    “occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of

    Under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, it
    is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of their religion or
    belief, which includes atheism.

  • “My only regret at this decision is that it won’t create new precedent in
    which we can use to stop other public institutions from over-blocking
    Internet search results. We need to change the very filtering industry
    itself, which is, as a whole, mostly unresponsive, secretive about their
    databases, and grudging to change.” As a library para-professional I agree whole heartedly. The filter’s list of blacklisted terms are antiquated. It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do anyway, which originally was to block porn. It doesn’t block anything as far as I can tell if you do an image search. What it does do, however is block progressive news sites/blogs and sites that contain a small group of words relating to sex or nudity in the address. It also makes librarians’ and personnels’ jobs much harder. I have had it block publishing sites from me and I have to access these to do my job. And don’t even get me started on medical websites. All in all, it’s beyond frustrating and not what libraries are about. I would love to see the end of Netsweeper and other such filters.