Ruling: Washington Libraries Can Deny Adults Unfiltered Internet

May 10, 2010

The Washington Supreme Court issued a 6–3 decision May 6 that affirmed a rural library system’s policy of refusing to temporarily disable an internet filter at an adult’s request. The ruling does not alter federal case law.

Filed with the U.S. District Court in Spokane in 2006, Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library had been remanded to the Washington Supreme Court to determine whether NCRL’s internet public use policy violated the state constitution.

“A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote (PDF file). “It can make the same choices about Internet access.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Tom Chambers rejected the analogy between filtering and collection development. “Public libraries have no responsibility to have any particular text in their collection, though of course the decision to exclude a text cannot be made for a constitutionally prohibited reason,” he wrote (PDF file). “But censoring material on the Internet is not the same thing as declining to purchase a particular book. It is more like refusing to circulate a book that is in the collection based on its content.”

NCRL Director Dean Markey said the library was gratified that the court understands “the discretion we must exercise to perform our essential functions.” He vowed that the library “will continue to provide broad access to a wealth of rich and diverse online content consistent with our Collection Development policy.”

Washington State Librarian Jan Walsh also praised the decision. “It strikes a blow for kids and it strikes a blow for taxpayers,” she stated, by giving public libraries “flexibility to reflect their community values as they adopt Internet policies and use of filters on certain content.”

Plaintiff attorney Duncan Manville emphasized after the ruling that the case “is about an overly broad filtering policy that has restricted an adult student from using the internet for a class assignment and a professional photographer from accessing art galleries online.” The original complaint detailed that the blocked websites included information on tobacco use by youth; a blog containing references to gun use as well as data about firearms; and the online version of Women and Guns, which is published by the Second Amendment Foundation. In its initial response, the library denied that the pending suit influenced NCRL's change of blocking-software providers a month before the case was filed.

Bradburn v. NCRL will now return to U.S. District Court Judge Edward F. Shea, who will consider the library policy’s federal constitutionality under the First Amendment.


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