OLYMPIA – The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether public libraries can refuse to disable their Internet filters for adults who want access to content that has been blocked.
“What the library does when it filters out selective pages from the Internet is the equivalent of acquiring the Encyclopedia Britannica and then ripping pages out of it,” attorney Duncan Manville, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, told the high court.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the five-county North Central Regional Library District in Eastern Washington in 2006, seeking to have the district ordered to provide unblocked access to the Internet when adults request it.
The ACLU is representing three library users and the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation in the case that the U.S. District Court in Spokane asked the state Supreme Court to review.
Chief Justice Gerry Alexander asked if a library’s decision to restrict access to a Web site is any different than its ability to decide what to put on its shelves.
“What we’re restricting are not individual sites,” said Thomas Adams, attorney for the library district.
“We’re making content-based decisions about categories of sites.”
Libraries that receive money for Internet access under two specific federal programs are required to have the ability to block minors from seeing pornography and other sites deemed harmful.
Adams said that the North Central Regional Library District does receive federal money, and that its filters also block content about computer hacking, gambling and personal ads on Craigslist, among others.
Adams said the policy is established by the director of the library and director of public services.
Libraries are able to unblock a particular site if they determine that it shouldn’t have been blocked in the first place. The lawsuit contends the library’s policy of refusing to disable its Internet filters when requested for lawful purposes is unconstitutional and goes beyond what law requires.
The ACLU says the blocked sites in question were legal sites, including YouTube and a Web site that encouraged people to commit random acts of kindness.
“The library’s Internet filter prevents adults from accessing a substantial amount of speech that everyone agrees is protected,” Manville said.
Adams said that “just because content is constitutionally protected does not mean that a library has to have it in its collection, either in print form or digital form.”
The district has 28 branch libraries in Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan counties.
The plaintiffs include a Ferry County woman who wanted to do research on tobacco use by youth; a professional photographer blocked from using YouTube and from researching art galleries and health issues; and an Okanogan man unable to access his blog, as well as information relating to gun use by hunters.
The Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation contends the library district blocked online access to Women & Guns, a magazine it sponsors covering topics such as self-defense and recreational shooting.
There is no timeframe on when the court may rule.