Alaska mayor orders Internet filtering on all public library terminals

Tuesday, August 31, 1999

The Anchorage, Alaska, public library system has become the latest to adopt Internet filtering on all its computers.

Last month, the mayor decided that all municipal computers should be filtered through Websense, a leading software filtering product.

“We're not trying to be Big Brother here,” the mayor's spokesman Sherman Ernouf told the Anchorage Daily News. “We just think porn is unacceptable to this community.”

However, free-speech advocates say that the mayor's action infringes on First Amendment rights.

“This policy is blatantly unconstitutional,” Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, said.

“Filters block material that is constitutionally protected for both children and adults,” June Pinnell-Stephens, the Alaska group's president, said. “Public libraries are supposed to be about providing access to information, not denying it.”

Rudinger said the ACLU found out about the installation of Websense after a librarian in Anchorage was denied access to the Web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate group.

In a letter hand-delivered to the mayor's office on Aug. 17, Rudinger and Pinnell-Stephens urged “the Municipality to repeal this policy [of filtering the Internet at public libraries], as it constitutes a clear violation of Alaskans' right to free speech and their corresponding right to receive information under the First Amendment.”

The letter informed the mayor that “the issue of whether Internet filtering software installed in public libraries violates the First Amendment was soundly decided in the affirmative last year by a Federal District Court in Virginia in a case litigated by the ACLU.”

In Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema wrote in November 1998 that when a public library offers Internet access, it is “restricted by the First Amendment in the limitations it is allowed to place on patron access.”

Brinkema wrote that the Loudoun County policy filtering Internet access on all library computers “offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment.”

Rudinger said that the mayor had not yet responded to the ACLU's letter, adding that the group would decide sometime next month what its next step would be if the mayor did not change the policy. She said the group might file a lawsuit challenging the policy.

Calls placed to the mayor's office were not returned.