I love when news organizations reach out to librarians. A local news agency reached out to me today to ask about internet filtering and some possible legislation here in Utah. A local senator is considering legislation that would require public libraries in Utah to filter internet access for minors. The question was respectful and this is how I responded:
I’m happy to respond. I will give you information here in the email and if you feel that you need more, just let me know. Please read the statement in its entirety. I also reserve the right to release the email if I feel like it is misquoted. First and foremost, the Utah Library Association is a chapter of the American Library Association. We support their statement on internet filtering. The entirety of the statement can be found here:
Filtering tends to create as many problems as it supposedly helps. The statement lists these main issues on filtering:
• “Publicly supported libraries are governmental institutions subject to the First Amendment, which forbids them from restricting information based on viewpoint or content discrimination.
• Libraries are places of inclusion rather than exclusion. Current blocking/filtering software not only prevents access to what some may consider “objectionable” material, but also blocks information protected by the First Amendment. The result is that legal and useful material will inevitably be blocked.
• Filters can impose the producer’s viewpoint on the community.
• Producers do not generally reveal what is being blocked, or provide methods for users to reach sites that were inadvertently blocked.
• Criteria used to block content are vaguely defined and subjectively applied.
• The vast majority of Internet sites are informative and useful. Blocking/filtering software often blocks access to materials it is not designed to block.
• Most blocking/filtering software was designed for the home market and was intended to respond to the preferences of parents making decisions for their children. As these products have moved into the library market, they have created a dissonance with the basic mission of libraries. Libraries are responsible for serving a broad and diverse community with different preferences and views. Blocking Internet sites is antithetical to library missions because it requires the library to limit information access.
• Filtering all Internet access is a one-size-fits-all “solution,” which cannot adapt to the varying ages and maturity levels of individual users.
• A role of librarians is to advise and assist users in selecting information resources. Parents and only parents have the right and responsibility to restrict their own children’s access—and only their own children’s access—to library resources, including the Internet. Librarians do not serve in loco parentis.
• Library use of blocking/filtering software creates an implied contract with parents that their children will not be able to access material on the Internet that they do not wish their children to read or view. Libraries will be unable to fulfill this implied contract, due to the technological limitations of the software.
• Laws prohibiting the production or distribution of child pornography and obscenity apply to the Internet. These laws provide protection for libraries and their users.”
At the same time, while objecting to the principles of filtering, most libraries have some form of filtering in place already in order to be eligible for both state and federal funding. Senator Weiler’s bill would be redundant, as public libraries usually filter in order to be eligible for state CLEF funding and federal LSTA funding.
Also, simple web searches will pull up news stories about how filters have been used to inappropriately block materials from students and minors based upon the political beliefs of administrators or IT professionals. Some of these stories are more reputable than others. When it comes to turning on filters, it is easy to check boxes or list keywords that you personally find objectionable, but that ultimately limit the First Amendment rights of even minors.
Parents ultimately need to control their children. It is inappropriate for the state or the library to interfere on this matter. What is appropriate for my child might not be appropriate for Senator Weiler’s child, and vice versa. We endanger the importance of parenting and the First Amendment if we continually build laws that intrude, because laws rarely provide for nuance. Laws create hammers instead of paint brushes.
Libraries have a great duty to support their communities and to promote a diversity of thought, information, and dialogue. Be wary of any law that limits that traditional role. When it comes to the rights of parents and the First Amendment, only incredibly finite and thoughtful laws should be passed in order to avoid chilling intellectual freedom and promoting censorship.
If you have any questions, please let me know.
I’m not posting this because I feel that it has been misquoted, indeed I have no idea if it will ever be quoted. I’m posting it here to show that we have a real role in this issue and an obligation to respond in a way befitting of our professional principles.
Dustin Fife is the Outreach and Patron Services Librarian at Utah Valley University Library. Prior to coming to UVU Library, Dustin spent six years as a public library director for San Juan County, Utah. Dustin is currently the Past-President of the Utah Library Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.