Printer-Friendly Format

MONDAY, APRIL 18, 2005




The ACLU of Rhode Island today released a report showing that public libraries in the state are impeding library 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 called on libraries to reassess the policies and practices they have implemented.

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

►Even though the federal law requires Internet blocking only of sites with certain visual depictions – such as “obscenity” – 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 CLAN – the consortium that runs a single automation system for the state’s public libraries – has adopted for all computers in its system exceeds what the federal law requires, so that even libraries opposed to unnecessary filtering are denying their 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 wrongly 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.


In demonstration of the enormous flaws in the commercial blocking software that libraries are using, the ACLU report notes that during a recent session at a local library, the software blocked access to, among other sites, the official web site of famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; a health web site for men; and an interview with actor Peter Sellers. 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 ACLU is hopeful that its 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. The full report is available here.