ACLU of Rhode Island Releases Report on "Troubling" Internet Censorship in State's Public Libraries

April 19, 2005 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today released a report showing that public libraries in the state are impeding patrons’ access to information on the Internet through the unnecessarily expansive use of so-called “blocking software.” Calling the findings “troubling,” the 18-page report, “Reader’s Block,” urged libraries to reassess the policies and practices they have implemented.

“We are hopeful that this report will encourage public libraries in Rhode Island to take every possible measure available to provide their patrons with the freest access to the Internet that is allowable under the law,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.

In 2001, Congress passed a law requiring libraries receiving federal funds to install blocking software on their computers with the purported goal of preventing access to Internet sites that are “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” However, the deeply flawed software keeps patrons from accessing tens of thousands of lawful and informative political, medical and other sites, while often failing to block alleged “pornographic” sites.

In a 2003 case in which the ACLU represented a Rhode Island-based health information Web site blocked by this commercial software, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law on the condition that the filters be deactivated for any lawful adult user who asks. However, the ACLU report found that based on survey results from 31 public libraries in Rhode Island, significant problems remain:

  • Federal law requires Internet blocking only of sites with certain visual depictions — such as “obscenity” — yet, some libraries have gone beyond this obligation, choosing to censor other types of material as well, including such ill-defined categories as “gambling” and “illegal” sites.
  • The minimum blocking level that the software system for the state’s public libraries has adopted for all computers exceeds what federal law requires, so that even libraries opposed to unnecessary filtering are forced to deny patrons access to protected material.
  • Many libraries in the state have done little to make patrons aware of their legal right to gain access to information blocked by the deeply flawed “filtering” software now in use.
  • Perhaps the most widely used public library in the state — the Providence Public Library’s main branch — routinely denies adults access to any material that is blocked by filtering software, in contravention of its own policy and the First Amendment rights of patrons.

The ACLU report notes that during a recent session at a local library, the software blocked access to the official web site of famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a health web site for men, and an interview with actor Peter Sellers, among other sites.

The report points out that “the unnecessary blocking of Internet material by public libraries only exacerbates the so-called digital divide in this country between those who have easy personal access to the Internet, and those who must rely on their local library for this access.”

The report concludes with specific actions libraries can take to maximize patrons’ First Amendment rights to Internet access while complying with the federal law. They include using minimum compliance filter settings; actively informing patrons of their options for filter-free Internet use; and providing appropriate staff training on the access rights of patrons.

The report is available online in PDF format at

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