May 6, 2010 in City

Libraries can filter porn, Washington high court says

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Court opinions
Majority opinion
Concurrence
Dissent

OLYMPIA – Public libraries do not have to turn off their Internet filters for adult patrons who want to view pornography on library computers, the state Supreme Court said today.

The state’s highest court said the constitutional protections of free speech weren’t violated by Internet filters at the North Central Regional Library District that blocked pornography and other materials the library determined were inappropriate.

“A public library has never been required to include all constitutionally protected speech in its collection and has traditionally had the authority, for example, to legitimately decline to include adult-oriented material such as pornography in its collection,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the majority opinion signed by four other justices. “This same discretion continues to exist with respect to Internet materials.”

The library district covers Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan counties with 28 branch libraries, some of which double as school libraries. It has Internet access at its branches, but uses a filter that blocks sites with pornography, gambling, spyware and some other categories. A patron who goes to a page that is blocked can request the block be lifted, but the library does not allow sites with pornography, nudity or “adult materials” through the filter, even if an adult requests it.

Three patrons argued the policy was so broad it was a “prior restraint” on their state constitutional rights of free speech, which is often viewed as even broader than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But a majority of the state Supreme Court said the Internet is “a vast river of information,” and the library district’s filtering policy was a realistic solution to select items without reducing the available material to “a bare trickle, or a few drops.”

Three justices disagreed, saying the filters block constitutionally protected speech, and the library district can disable them for an adult on request. But the district chooses not to because it is inconvenient.

“Simply put, the State has no interest in protecting adults from constitutionally protected materials on the Internet,” Justice Tom Chambers wrote in a dissent signed by Justices Richard Sanders and Debra Stephens. “Concerns that a child might see something unfortunate on the screen must be dealt with in a less draconian manner.”


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