Suit filed over blocking of religious content
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
ST. LOUIS (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Tuesday against a small Missouri town’s public library, claiming it unconstitutionally blocks access to websites related to Wicca and other minority religions.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in St. Louis on behalf of Anaka Hunter, a resident of Salem, a largely Christian community of about 5,000 residents in the Missouri Ozarks. It claims Hunter was trying to do research at the Salem Public Library but filtering software blocked access to many sites about religions such as Wicca, an earth-based religion, derived from pre-Christian religions and magical practices that promote a peaceful and balanced lifestyle. Hunter was also unable to access sites about Native American Religions.
The suit said some religions were labeled “occult” or even “criminal.”
Hunter was doing the research to get more in touch with her Native American roots through spirituality, the ACLU said. Once access was denied, she complained to the library director, who unblocked some, but not all, information. Hunter also complained to the library board, but the board was dismissive of her concerns, the ACLU said.
Federal law requires public libraries to use filtering software that blocks access to sites with explicit, pornographic and adult content. The ACLU suit claims the Salem library went too far, though, in blocking information about religion.
“The library is the last place that should be censoring information about different cultures,” ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert said.
Library director Glenda Wofford said it isn’t the library’s intent to prohibit reasonable use of the Internet for research and other legitimate purposes. She said she would have unblocked websites but Hunter refused to specify which sites she wanted to access, citing privacy rights.
Hunter said in a statement through the ACLU, “It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint. It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.”
The suit said the library’s Netsweeper software blocked sites such as the official webpage of the Wiccan church; the Wikipedia entry for Wicca; Astrology.com; and the Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains discussions on death and death rituals for several cultures and religions.
The suit said the software classified sites related to Native American culture and Wiccan faith in the blocked category “criminal skills.” But Wofford said the software was provided by the University of Missouri and the library had no control over how it labels content.
“The Salem library is a small, rural library,” Wofford said. “We’re unable to provide our own filtering system.”
The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the library from blocking religious content “based upon its viewpoint.” It also seeks “nominal” but unspecified damages.
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