Missouri public library blocks websites about ‘occult’ spirituality

By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, January 3, 2012 19:51 EDT
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Computer lab photo by Tulane Public Relations
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The Salem Public Library in Missouri along with its board of trustees face a lawsuit for blocking access to websites discussing indigenous American spirituality and the Wiccan faith

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed the lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Salem resident Anaka Hunter, who was unable to access websites pertaining to the religions for her own research.

Hunter brought the blocked websites to the attention of Salem Library Director Glenda Wofford, but Wofford responded there was nothing she could do about the websites, which were blocked by the library’s filtering system. Wofford said she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an “obligation” to call the “proper authorities” to report people who wanted to view the sites, according to the lawsuit.

“It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint,” Hunter said. “It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.”

The library is required by law to have a filtering system that prevents children from accessing obscene images and other content that is harmful to minors.

The Netsweeper filtering software used by the library classifies websites as “adult image,” “criminal skills,” “extreme,” “general,” “occult,” “pornography,” and “religion,” among other classifications. The software allows library administrators to determine which categories are blocked.

The “occult” category includes the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry pertaining to Wicca, Astrology.com and The Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains viewpoint-neutral discussions of various religions’ ideas of death.

The ACLU said the library went too far by blocking any site marked as “occult” or “criminal skills,” decrying the discrimination against non-mainstream religions and beliefs. The group noted that sites marked as “occult” were not likely to contain pornographic images.

“The library has no business blocking these websites as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal’ in the first place and certainly shouldn’t be making arbitrary follow-up decisions based on the personal predilections of library staff,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Public libraries should be facilitating access to educational information, not blocking it.”

Photo credit: Tulane Public Relations, Creative Commons licensed

Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan has served as an editor for Raw Story since August 2010, and is based out of Sacramento, California. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received a Bachelor of Science from Bradley University. Eric is also the publisher and editor of PsyPost. You can follow him on Twitter @ewdolan.
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