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Ban Censorship, Not Books or Websites

Grant Doty,
ACLU of Eastern Missouri
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September 28, 2011

On July 25, 2011, the Republic School District Board in southwest Missouri voted unanimously to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer from its curriculum and library. Banning books from libraries is nothing new, but across the nation a brave new era has dawned in the suppression of knowledge. Today, as libraries and schools provide access to the Internet, countless ideas are kept out by software filters. In fact, this blog post may be inaccessible in some schools and libraries. Because societal and individual advancement is fueled by the free exchange of ideas, the ACLU, as part of its Don’t Filter Me initiative, is challenging those that seek to stifle public discourse.

Recently the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, and the Freedom to Read Foundation notified the Missouri Research & Education Network (“MOREnet”), a consortium that provides Internet access and filtering software to 100 school districts and numerous public libraries across the state, that it was illegally censoring LGBT-related websites. MOREnet promptly responded, stating that it will no longer activate this filter that blocks non-sexual content addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) subjects and issues. MOREnet’s commendable response is consistent with librarians’ responsibility to make available a wide spectrum of diverse materials and opposing viewpoints without imposing their own political, moral, or aesthetic views, without proscribing based on viewpoint, and without prejudicing or labeling material as subversive or dangerous.

Unfortunately, however, not all school districts and libraries are as responsible as MOREnet. For example, in May the ACLU of Eastern Missouri sent a letter to the Camdenton School District informing it that its web filters are unconstitutionally blocking access to hundreds of LGBT websites while allowing access to anti-LGBT ones. The school district brushed it off, so the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a federal lawsuit against the school district and its superintendent. Camdenton is not the only public institution that insists on blocking protected content, and the ACLU is actively investigating those that persist in illegal censorship.

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414 (1989). Although this principle was articulated by the United States Supreme Court 22 years ago, it remains true even as libraries and schools open themselves to the world via the Internet.

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