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.”
“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.
“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.