Librarian leads the charge in defending filtering software

Friday, December 11, 1998


David Burt has become a vocal online advocate for filtering software and its use in public libraries to protect children from pornography on the Internet.


“It is ridiculous to say that the First Amendment commands the government to offer pornography welfare to people,” says the information technology librarian at Oregon’s Lake Oswego Public Library.


Burt passionately believes that public libraries should use blocking software to protect children from inappropriate material.


To this end, Burt founded Filtering Facts, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the use of filtering software in public libraries.


Burt said his impetus for starting Filtering Facts was an American Library Association meeting in San Francisco in July 1997.


At that meeting, Burt attended a panel discussion titled “To Filter or Not to Filter.” He says only one side was represented on the panel — the anti-filtering side. “I asked why nobody supported filtering and received no answer,” Burt told freedomforum.org. “And this angered me. I mean, we should not have unfiltered access for children.”


Later that month Burt started his Web site to promote the use of filtering software in public libraries. A statement on his site reads: “To date, the debate on the use of filtering software in libraries has been dominated by the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations that take an absolutist stand on free speech. The result of this one-sided debate has been that much of the media and public have heard only the free speech absolutism side of the issues.”


The ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee issued a “Statement on Internet Filtering” on July 1, 1997, noting that “the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights” and “is inconsistent with the United States Constitution.”


Burt says the ALA leadership has “failed to adapt its doctrine to a changing world.”


“Their no-restriction policies work fine for books, but a no-restriction policy does not work at all on the Internet,” he says, observing that while Hustler magazine is not available at public libraries, it can be accessed via the Internet.


However, Steve Herb, head of the Education Library for Penn State University and chairman of the Intellectual Freedom Committee at ALA, says that “libraries need to connect people with information without deciding in advance what information is right for a certain person.”


Burt’s supporters said his break from ALA policy was a brave stand.


“It takes a lot of courage for a librarian to stand up like David did and publicly disagree with the ALA leadership,” says Karen Jo Gounaud, founder and president of Family Friendly Libraries.


A cyber soapbox


Burt’s Web site is replete with information about filtering software products, court cases involving filtering software and articles about individuals accessing Internet pornography at public libraries. The Filtering Facts site is a good example of how the Internet empowers the individual speaker.


“David’s Web site is a crucial part of the debate about filtering software,” says Shyla Welch, communications director for the anti-pornography group Enough is Enough. “David is a terrific example of how one person can use the Internet to raise awareness and be a resource on an issue. Millions of people can go to his Web site and receive valuable information.”


Steve Watters, Internet research analyst for Focus on the Family cites Burt as his primary example of an online activist in his article “Changing the World From Your Living Room: The Growing Reach of Cyber Activism.”


Watters writes: “In no time, Burt went from simply displaying The New York Times on the newspaper rack to being quoted in the Times. What does he credit for the change? The Internet.”


“His site tells people what is really going on in libraries and gives a different viewpoint from the utopian vision that the American Library Association ideologues hold,” Welch said. “The ALA, and particularly its Office of Intellectual Freedom, holds an ivory-tower mentality that is frankly out of touch with the day-to-day operations of the public library.”


Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families, agrees. “Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of David’s work is that he has become the voice for the little guy — for the many floor-level librarians who want to consider filtering software in public libraries.”


Taylor says the Filtering Facts Web site has become “the main source of information on the issue and the only alternative voice to the views espoused by the ALA leadership.


Even some of his critics acknowledge that Burt has effectively used the Internet to promote his viewpoints.


“Burt has been a fairly effective advocate for the pro-filtering side,” says Jonathan Wallace, a founding member of the Censorware Project, a group that opposes the use of blocking software in public institutions.


Wallace points to Burt’s acknowledgment on his Web site that he has received grants from several conservative Christian groups.


Burt maintains this is not a relevant point. A self-described atheist and Democrat, Burt says: “Protecting children from pornography isn’t liberal versus conservative or religious versus secular; it’s about common sense.”


Witness for the defense


David Burt’s involvement in the filtering debate deepened when he served as an expert witness in the seminal lawsuit on the use of filtering software in public institutions — Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library.


Burt wrote a detailed report on filtering software for the Virginia county’s library board and gave a deposition in the case.


U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled last month that the Loudoun County Library policy mandating filtering software on all computer terminals for all users violated First Amendment free-speech rights. “It has long been a matter of settled law that restricting what adults may read to a level appropriate for minors is a violation of the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Brinkema wrote.


She cited Burt’s report in noting that there were only “isolated incidents” — three, in fact — of children accessing pornographic materials off the Internet at public libraries. Brinkema wrote that “Burt’s own statements indicate that such problems are practically nonexistent.”


Burt disagrees with Brinkema’s decision and her characterizations of the problems facing libraries.


“I think that ‘isolated incidents’ is an inaccurate depiction of the problem,” Burt says. “On my Web site I now have over 100 documented incidents of minors accessing pornography at public libraries.


“This is not a question of ‘isolated incidents’ or a ‘practically nonexistent’ problem. This is a pervasive problem.”


To prove his point, Burt has now sent Freedom of Information requests to various libraries around the country in an effort to document incidents of children accessing pornographic materials.


Some libraries have refused to comply, says Burt, including the San Antonio Public Library, the Denver Public Library and the public library in Olathe, Kan.


He views it as somewhat ironic that libraries which supposedly embrace the First Amendment are refusing his requests for information.


Free-speech friend or foe?


Burt also takes issue with some of his critics who charge that his views infringe on First Amendment rights.


He says he is pro-Internet and pro-freedom of speech but that there simply is material out there that is inappropriate for a public library.


“The First Amendment does not compel libraries to open up adult bookstores,” Burt declares.


However, James Tyre, a California attorney and member of the Censorware Project, says: “The First Amendment does compel that any restriction on speech be done in the least restrictive means. No one has shown that this incredibly overbroad blocking through censorware is the least restrictive means possible.


“Burt casts aside the Constitution in order to further his own political agenda,” Tyre says.


Wallace of the Censorware Project says that Burt must come to grips with Judge Brinkema’s analysis in the Mainstream Loudoun case that if a public library is going to offer Internet access, it must do so in accordance with the First Amendment.


“Burt must understand that clumsy, overreaching software which blocks scores upon scores — in fact thousands — of innocent Web pages is not a solution that the First Amendment will tolerate in a public library.


Burt says the ideal solution for libraries would be to “filter for all minors and then let each community decide whether there should be filtering for adults at their respective library.”


“To use a phrase from the free-speech absolutists, this one-size-fits-all method — no filtering — is not sensitive to the differences between communities. What’s appropriate in one community is not appropriate in another,” he says.


“Filtering software tools are imperfect,” Burt acknowledges, “but they are the best tool that we have and are certainly better than nothing.”