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State court got it right on libraries’ discretion

Sat., May 8, 2010

The question before the Washington Supreme Court in Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District was easy. Justices Tom Chambers and Jim Johnson agreed on that much, but little else.

Can a library can block pornographic Internet sites, even for adult patrons who request them?

Chambers: “Of course it cannot.”

Johnson: “Yes.”

Their blunt disagreement demonstrates the flaw in their premise. The question was not simple. It was complex, testing how far cherished values can be stretched to protect liberty without mocking it.

History is full of troubling episodes in which government clamped down on dissident expressions that contradicted prevailing beliefs. So Americans rely on the First Amendment for protection, and the Washington Constitution further promises that any person “may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects.”

But do those guarantees require a public library to secure whatever material any patron demands? For that matter, would a school district have to use any curriculum that a parent demands?

The majority in the 6-3 decision got it right, holding that libraries have discretion to select the materials they believe are best for their collections – and that applies to the Internet as well as the bound volumes on the shelves. And it’s not a matter of how much space or money is available.

“Regardless of its resources, a library need not place pornographic materials on its shelves, although such materials are constitutionally protected. It need not place children’s comic books on its shelves, although these, too, are constitutionally protected,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the majority.

The 50-year-old library district involved includes 26 small libraries scattered across Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan counties. Fourteen of those branches are, in effect, the local school library.

While it’s true that once you access the Internet, you access all of it, managing limited budgets in small facilities forces managers to think about how they can get the best, broadest use of the computers they can afford. Policies that discourage youngsters’ use of computers based on how others nearby are being used pose a legitimate concern.

Chambers, in his dissent, acknowledged the problem, but he recalled that protecting children is too often used to restrict constitutionally protected speech.

His concern is better suited to a situation – not present in this case – in which a library or a school renders a “quality-based collection judgment” to acquire a work, then removes it to satisfy sensitive patrons who object.

Justice Johnson, who wrote a separate concurring opinion because he thought the majority “overcomplicated” the matter, called for strict application of the Washington Constitution, which addresses the right to “speak, write and publish,” not on a right to receive information and ideas.

That’s why he found it an easy question.


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