Federal judge upholds Wash. library’s Internet filtering policy

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A public library system in the state of Washington did not violate the First Amendment by installing filtering software on its computers for all patrons — both children and adults, a federal judge has ruled.

The North Central Regional Library District, which has 28 libraries, uses a filter called FortiGuard to block web pages concerning hacking, phishing, malware, spyware, nudity, sexuality, gambling and other topics. Adult patrons could submit requests to library staff to unblock certain particular web pages.

In 2006 three library patrons — Sarah Bradburn, Pearl Cherrington and Charles Heinlen — and a nonprofit organization called Second Amendment Foundation sued in federal district court in Spokane. The plaintiffs contended that use of the filtering system for adult patrons violated the First Amendment.

The patrons sued under both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the free-speech provision of the Washington State Constitution. In September 2008, the federal district court handed off the state constitutional question to the Washington Supreme Court. In June 2010, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the filtering software for adult patrons did not violate the state constitution.

This week, U.S. District Judge Edward F. Shea reached a similar result on the First Amendment question in Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District. Shea analogized the use of filtering software to libraries’ decisions on which books and magazines to stock.

Normally when a government entity makes distinctions on speech based on content, such a policy is subject to a high form of judicial review known as strict scrutiny. But Shea reasoned that when a government entity provides a public service that by its very nature involves the consideration of content, a much lower standard of review is appropriate.

Shea concluded on April 10 that rational basis — a reasonableness standard — was the proper standard to use in reviewing the policy.

“It is reasonable for NCRL to develop an Internet policy that can be implemented consistently throughout its twenty-eight libraries,” he wrote. “Blocking Internet sites and pages that contain constitutionally-protected material deemed suitable only for adults helps ensure that the environment at NCRL libraries is consistent with its mission of providing learning and research opportunities for individuals of all ages.”

Shea acknowledged that “this process may frustrate some adult patrons.”

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