The phrase “safe libraries” should always raise a red flag. Proponents for “safer libraries” argue that some information is inherently dangerous, but the First Amendment is designed to ward off the suppression of information. In the case of  internet filters intended to block sexually explicit material, librarians and community members have to ask the questions, “Safe for whom?” and “Safe from what?”  Public libraries, as public information centers where speech is constitutionally protected, should be especially vigilant in protecting free speech online.

Internet filters are under legal scrutiny in two West-coast library districts right now for very different reasons.  One library is being sued for installing filters; another is under pressure to implement them.  In the Washington State Supreme Court, the ACLU is representing three library users and a nonprofit who argue that the filtering software at the North Central Regional Library District violated their First Amendment rights.  They were unable to access information about youth tobacco usage, health issues, the Second Amendment Foundation’s magazine Women and Guns, and videos on YouTube.  Meanwhile, a civil grand jury in Sonoma County, California released a report last week that advised the Santa Rosa Central Library to install filtering software on all of its public computers.

Library patrons at both libraries argue that filters are necessary in the name of “child safety.”  At the Sonoma County library, parents are also concerned that young people walking by computer kiosks could see adults viewing sexually explicit sites.  A columnist for The Oregonian newspaper says of the controversy in Washington that filters are “an attempt to keep…libraries safe for all patrons and library workers.”

Yes, filtering software in libraries exists in the name of child safety, but in practice it always endangers other kinds of speech.  LGBTQ persons, for example, are not “safer” in libraries with internet filters.  Automated software is a poor judge of the difference between “sexuality” and “sex,”  meaning that filters have been known to block access to the sites of gay health, advocacy and support groups.  Attempts to “protect” children with filters most often expand into restrictions on adults’ access to information, because a one-size-fits-all internet filter will always censor some protected speech.

The unfortunately-named Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that libraries receiving certain federal funds must have filtering software installed.  In the 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld CIPA’s constitutionality, the plurality opinion held that filtering is comparable to the decisions a library makes in purchasing other materials.  But Justice Souter, in a dissent, wrote that filters are more akin to a library buying an encyclopedia and then ripping out “objectionable” pages.

Libraries can take steps to minimize the effects of CIPA, including choosing filters without ideological backgrounds, and making them simple for adults to disable.  Plus, filters are not the only tools available to keep kids away from content that parents deem objectionable.  Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) are standard in public libraries.  They prohibit illegal activity on public computers, warn that obscene content exists, and let parents know that it’s their responsibility to police their children.  Relocating computers to a more isolated part of the library guards against the possibility of over-the-shoulder exposure.  But young people must still have unrestricted access to that area.

Sonoma County Library Director Sandra Cooper understands the implications of installing filtering software in the library:

It’s a slippery slope in terms of First Amendment rights…We’re looking at other ways to deal with the problem that don’t interfere with people’s access to information.

Let’s hope the Sonoma and North Central libraries both find acceptable compromises without using internet filters.  Going to the library to practice your unrestricted freedoms of inquiry and speech is never really safe—but censored access to information is a far more dangerous alternative.