Following ACLU Action, Rhode Island Public Libraries Agree to Give Patrons Increased Access to Internet

October 7, 2005 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — Responding to a report released earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the state’s library network has revised its Internet blocking procedure to increase access to information for public library patrons, addressing ACLU fears that libraries were “inappropriately discouraging or barring patrons’ access to constitutionally protected material.”

“We are pleased that the state’s public libraries have taken a positive step toward ensuring that library patrons have the freest possible access to the Internet,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU.

The revisions come in response to an ACLU report released in April. According to the report, the Cooperating Libraries Automated Network (CLAN), a non-profit consortium of public libraries headed by the state’s library directors and a separate staff, was blocking Internet content beyond what is required by a controversial federal law known as the Children’s Internet Protection Act. CLAN manages a statewide library blocking program to comply with the law’s mandate that all libraries receiving certain federal funds limit Internet access. CLAN determines what basic content categories the software blocks.

The ACLU report found that CLAN’s minimum blocking level – configured to block “sex,” “adult content,” and “nudity,” as defined and identified by the software’s manufacturers – exceeded the law’s required blocking of material deemed obscene or harmful to minors. The report also noted that CLAN failed to facilitate “unblocking,” or temporary disarming, of the software during Internet use by adult library patrons, despite the fact that this option is required by both the law and a U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting the law.

In a recent letter to the ACLU, CLAN President Kathryn Taylor said CLAN had moved quickly to rectify the problems. She said the “nudity” category – which blocked any “nude or semi-nude human forms not overtly sexual in intent or effect” – had been dropped from CLAN’s minimum software setting. That category had blocked access to a wide range of medical and other information. In addition, a message was added to the standardized blocking screen telling patrons to ask a librarian if they want the site unblocked. According to the ACLU, Taylor also said that CLAN sent an e-mail with unblocking instructions to the director of each local library.

But the ACLU is concerned that some libraries have independently chosen to block categories beyond CLAN’s minimum option. Four libraries reported such additional blocks on the ACLU’s most recent survey, while 18 libraries failed to respond to the survey, leaving the extent of over-blocking unclear. ACLU officials say that libraries that block these additional categories, which range from “gambling” to “illegal,” are creating a serious impediment to free speech.

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