A recent internet censorship case took an odd turn in Washington State on May 6th. The state Supreme Court decision is actually part of a suit that is being decided by a U.S. District court (a federal court), so the May 6th decision has not yet settled the matter. An AP article explains that the next step is back to the federal court.
The case, known as Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District, is actually about a very narrow issue: whether or not a public library has to unblock access to a legitimate website blocked by an internet filter upon demand by an adult. It’s not at all about obscenity or minors. What the federal court asked the state Supreme Court to evaluate was whether or not such unblocking was required by the Free Speech provisions of the Washington state constitution. The federal court will take the state court’s findings into consideration in a separate decision that will also consider the implications of federal law.
In a split decision, the majority of the justices on the state Supreme Court decided that the state constitution allowed the library to ignore an adult’s demand for unblocking. Five justices wrote the prevailing opinion, with one justice agreeing with them, but writing a separate opinion. Three of the Supreme Court justices disagreed, writing a dissenting opinion.
It’s no surprise that I disagree with the majority’s decision. But it’s not just a question of disagreement. The court’s decision is nothing less than bizarre, bordering on the incomprehensible. And its incomprehensibility is not a question of legalese. It’s a question of basic logic. The decision makes little sense.
To make their decision work, the majority treated internet filtering like “selection,” the process by which a library selects and acquires books and other materials. A library does not (in fact, cannot) house every constitutionally-protected book, and so, the court reasoned, a library does not have to provide access to every constitutionally-protected web page. Somehow, according to the court, this means that a library doesn't have to unblock a blocked web page just because an adult asks for it, even if the blocked page is clearly within the bounds of protected speech.
There are many quantum leaps of illogic in the court’s line of reasoning, and I’ll bore everybody to tears if I try to pick every detail apart. The main point is that the analogy between selection and internet filters is irrational. Following the court’s logic, a library could subscribe to the New York Times, but could cut pages out of selected issues for any reason, or for no reason at all. By the court’s logic, the library could buy ten books and decide keep two of them under lock and key.
I am not alone in holding this opinion. Three justices on the Washington state Supreme Court also took the majority to task. Short and to the point, the dissenting opinion’s opening sentence speaks volumes:
“The question before this court is whether, consistent with our state constitution's free speech protections, a public library can actively restrict adult access to web sites containing constitutionally protected speech. The question is easy to answer: of course it cannot.”The dissenting opinion also says:
“There is simply no reason . . . to install a system to protect children that cannot be disabled when used by adults.”
“But censoring material on the Internet is not the same thing as declining to purchase a particular book. It is more like refusing to circulate a book that is in the collection based on its content. That would raise serious constitutional concerns.”
“Simply put, the State has no interest in protecting adults from constitutionally protected materials on the Internet. These policies do exactly that. The filter should be removed on the request of an adult patron.”The problem with the court’s reasoning is not (at least not entirely) with its analysis of the law. That is, after all, their area of expertise. But in this decision, as in some others, the judges have demonstrated a lack of comprehension of what the internet is or what filters do. The split in the decision on this case probably reflects different levels of technical understanding. Some things the majority seems not to have grasped are:
- The internet itself is a public forum. It is, in many ways, the ultimate public forum. As such, infringements upon internet Free Speech should always be subject to “strict scrutiny,” the most rigorous protection of Free Speech that courts can provide.
- When a library connects to the internet, it automatically has access to countless web pages. Few libraries, if any, engage in any kind of selection process regarding internet sites. In the absence of planned action, the library and its patrons have access to the entire internet, not just portions of it.
- Internet filters do not equate to selecting books to put on a library shelf. Internet filters actively prevent access to materials that library patrons would otherwise have access to. Internet filters are much more like removing books from the shelves than they are like any kind of selection process.