Wednesday, March 31, 2010

South Park Does Censorship

With its usual satire and sarcasm, the South Park comedy cartoon recently took on the issue of censorship.  The episode, titled The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs and originally aired on March 24th, is crudely hysterical, and definitely not for the sensitive viewer.

The episode starts with a perspective on censorship in real world. A school teacher assigns the usual gang of South Park characters to read J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, explaining that it is banned in many schools because of its vulgar and dangerous content. This encourages the students, usually reluctant readers, who look forward to something stimulating.  They rush home to read the banned book, but become sorely disappointed when they are unable to find anything in it that shocks them in the least.

Feeling cheated, Cartman declares, “it’s not obscene, dude; I’ll show them f***ing obscene!” The boys then set out to write the most vulgar and offensive book of all time.  They entertain themselves by coming up with a story that is beyond disgusting and is utterly devoid of any serious content.  When one student’s mother accidentally discovers the book, she vomits on reading the first paragraph. In fact no adult can get through the first page without puking, and the book is declared a literary hit. 

I won’t spoil the twists or ending of the plot. Suffice it to say that the episode challenges readers to take personal responsibility for the meanings and importance they give to literature. 

The episode can be viewed online at:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Running With Scissors

I read Running With Scissors in a single day, unable to put the book down. I found it quite funny, a drily witty examination of impossible levels of familial disorder and dysfunction. For those of us who grew up in households approximating what passes for normal in our society, it is difficult to react to this story as anything other than a comedy of errors.

But Running With Scissors isn’t a comedy, or even a novel. Author Augusten Burroughs offers it to us as a memoir, an autobiography, a recollection of historical facts.

So this is a peek into madness, the recollections of a pre-teen and teen growing up under bizarre circumstances. His father is emotionally unavailable and then completely absent.  His mother is beyond self-absorbed, when she’s not having a psychotic episode. Burroughs winds up living in the household of his mother’s psychiatrist, which is much more a web of interlocking neuroses than a family. The older teens around him are immature and out of control; the adults around him are adults in years only, certainly not in emotional maturity. Co-dependency rules.

Growing up far too fast and far too soon has its consequences. Burroughs smokes, drinks, uses drugs and has sex. None of this is glorified in any way. All of these behaviors are depicted as symptoms of the massive dysfunction of his developmental environment. The teenage Burroughs has the freedom many teens think they want, and the direct result is an acute awareness of his own need for adult guidance.

Readers of differing backgrounds will find very different benefits from reading the book, which is probably why it’s been on the New York Times Bestsellers list and has been made into a movie. Some will be entertained by what seems to them to be a home life that couldn’t possibly be real.  Many will gain a new appreciation for the normalcy of their own upbringing. A few may be comforted to learn they’re not the only ones raised in the midst of a mental hurricane.

Of course, I wouldn’t be reviewing Running With Scissors here if it hadn’t been challenged somewhere by misguided adults who mistakenly believed they were doing minors a favor by keeping this book from them. Currently (March 2010), in the frequently censorious state of Florida, some parents in  the Hillsborough County School District want the book dropped from a high school reading list and removed from all school libraries in the district. Committees at each of the nine high schools in the district reviewed the book and made varying recommendations. In four high schools the committees voted to retain the book with a “mature readers” sticker on the front, three decided to require parental permission, and two voted to ban the book altogether. Ironically, a book about adults who can’t act as adults is being banned by some supposed adults who do not understand the value of literature, don’t understand the choices teenagers are realistically faced with, and simply cannot grasp the distinction between private choices and public policy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Refusing to Learn?

I’ve written before about the crying need to educate the administrators of public schools about censorship. Recent news stories have focused again on the peculiar learning disabilities of that group.

To begin with an example that goes beyond library censorship, consider this week’s case of the high school prom in Itawamba County, Mississippi. The school district prohibited a female student, who self-identified as lesbian, from wearing a tuxedo or bringing a same-sex date to the prom. The student contacted the ACLU, who wrote a letter to the school district, explaining the applicable law and demanding that the student be allowed to attend as she planned. This is not a difficult or obscure area of law. The applicable statutes are clear and recent court precedents strongly supported the position of the student and the ACLU. But the hard-headed school board, probably acting on very bad legal advice, dug in their heels, cancelling the prom altogether. The result, drearily predictable to everyone other than the school administrators, was a US District Court decision finding that the school had violated the student’s First Amendment rights in three different ways. The student is now in a position to sue the school district for punitive and compensatory damages.

One might hope that extensive news coverage would educate educators everywhere, putting them on notice that they have a thing or two to learn about the First Amendment. The Itawamba County incident drew international attention, appearing in all of the major US news services and in at least a dozen languages internationally. Similarly, international news coverage and ridicule fell on the Riverside County, California, school district that pulled copies of the dictionary from elementary school classrooms (because it contained dirty words), and on a Culpeper County, Virginia, school district that dropped (or tried to drop) Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from the curriculum. 

Sadly, recent news indicates that many administrators missed these educational opportunities. In Hillsborough County, Florida, a challenge is underway against Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors. Never mind that we’re talking here about high school students or that the book was a New York Times bestseller or was made into a movie. At the Rancocas Valley school district in New Jersey, some parents have formally objected to Revolutionary Voices and several other gay-themed books, proclaiming that “they are detrimental to children,” and “we need to protect our children.”  Meanwhile, in Huntington Beach, California, a controversy continues over Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The district has determined that the book is “inappropriate” for minors and requires students to present a signed parental permission slip to read it. This is a major literary work by a major American writer, and like so many other great works of literature, it is frequently used – and frequently challenged – in educational institutions. 

While I think the objecting parents deserve a certain amount of criticism, the school boards in these cases are far more blameworthy. I don’t understand why anyone would actually try to ban a book, but I understand that the opinions of parents will vary, and that many have no training in or awareness of the ethics or legalities of Free Speech. But when it comes to principals, superintendents, and school boards, it’s part of their job to understand those things. Those in charge of education ought to understand the educational value of literature, are supposed to value expanded horizons and giving a voice to the voiceless. The ethics of their profession demands a deep respect for Freedom of Expression. Above all, school administrators need to understand the basics – just the basics – of those parts of the law that address censorship and Free Speech in public schools.  Book challenges happen constantly, yet each one seems to be treated as if it were something new, as if nobody understood the law, as if nobody knew that most book challenges fail.  Is that a failure to learn, or a refusal to learn? 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Technology Groups Critique Australia's Internet Censorship Plan

It's been slow to organize, but opposition to Australia's proposed internet filtering scheme is finally firming up, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 23rd.  The Herald reports that "Australia's biggest technology companies, communications academics and many lobby groups have delivered a withering critique" of the plan. The article went on to say:
"[M]any reiterated their concerns that the policy is fundamentally unsound and would do little to make the internet a safer place for children. Many said the scope of blocked content was too broad and would render legitimate sites inaccessible, while the process of adding sites to the blacklist could be subject to abuse by bureaucrats and politicians."
 It is possible, just possible, that logic might win out in the end in this debate. Only time will tell.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Another Pesky Library Exception

Back in November I posted an article pointing out that the obscenity laws of some states specifically exempt libraries, and sometimes other institutions of learning, from some of their restrictions. In states with such laws it is sometimes legal for a library to carry materials that would be illegal to sell at a convenience store (just as an example). I quoted a section of Wisconsin state law (W.S.A. 948.1) that beautifully described the special functions of libraries and schools as it protected Free Speech in those institutions. Of course, I did not have the luxury of delving into the laws of all the states.

A recent news item raised a similar question about obscenity laws in Washington State. The article implied that only Child Pornography (which is defined in Federal law) is illegal there, at least in terms of what can be viewed on a computer in a public library. So I did the best I can, as a non-lawyer, to look into that law.

While the Wisconsin exemption is longer and more protective of the mission of libraries, the Washington law is impressively concise. Referring to much of Washington's obscenity law as "RCW 9.68.050 through 9.68.120," that law limits its own applicability:
Nothing in RCW 9.68.050 through 9.68.120 shall apply to the circulation of any such material by any recognized historical society or museum, the state law library, any county law library, the state library, the public library, any library of any college or university, or to any archive or library under the supervision and control of the state, county, municipality, or other political subdivision.
One of the things that causes confusion in debates about library censorship is that there is no nationwide standard for defining what is illegally obscene, let alone who can or cannot distribute, display, or receive such materials. When it comes to obscenity and public libraries, it is quite possible, even common, that a specific item that is illegal in one jurisdiction is perfectly legal in another.  The notable exception is Child Pornography - material that depicts real minors in a sexual way - which is illegal everywhere, controlled by Federal law rather than states, counties, or municipalities.

Filters: Two Insider's Views

A pair of articles on Internet Filtering in public schools appeared this morning (3/21) in the Miami Herald.  The “pro” article (click here) points out the problems caused by filters in a school setting, while the “con” article (click here) points out the benefits of filters.  What makes these interesting is that they’re written by insiders, high school students who are directly affected by the filters.

The “con” article, praising the benefits of internet filters in schools, makes no mention of pornography. It focuses entirely on the distractions and problems of social networking sites like “MySpace, Twitter and Facebook.”  The student writer points out that these distract from school work and can provide an opening for cyberbullies and online predators, all of which students are better off without.

The “pro” article makes no mention of the social networking issues. It focuses instead on the difficulty in obtaining educational information in a filtered environment, and on the weakness of the filters.  The writer points out that “a search for websites on sexually transmitted diseases is practically futile. Even some sites on breast cancer are restricted,” and that important resources “like Google Images are completely blocked off.”  The article also points out that some students are finding ways to bypass the filters, relying on computers outside of school, installing proxies inside the school, or using outside computers to search the web and deliver the resultant screen images to a school computer. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

The State of Censorship

Book challenges continue in Wisconsin's public schools, according to an article in this morning's Fond Du Lac ReporterPaint Me Like I Am is an anthology of poems written as part of a writing project for at-risk teens. One poem in the anthology, Diary of an Abusive Stepfather, raised the hackles of a parent who found its "vulgar language" objectionable. This is the same poem that a Vineland, NJ, school principal physically ripped out of his school's copy of the anthology last year (an undamaged copy has since been placed in that school's library).  In the North Fond du Lac school district, a committee has been formed to review the book and make a recommendation to the school district.

In the nearby Fond du Lac school district, another challenge is further along. A parent who brought a challenge to seven books is now appealing the decision of a review committee to keep a copy of One of those Hideous Books where the Mother Dies. The other six books in this challenge are still under consideration, the parent having added them later to the initial challenge. An archived article from the Fond Du Lac Reporter shows that the late additions included Sonya Sones' What My Mother Doesn't Know, Julie Halpern's Get Well Soon, and four books by Ann Brashares: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood, and Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood.  

One must, of course, allow a parent to make choices about what his or her own child may read. It remains mystery, however, why such personal choices are so often translated into removing or restricting access to a book, thus imposing one individual's opinions on everyone else. A deeper mystery is the refusal of the challengers to learn from the challenge process. More often than not, a committee reviews the challenged book and votes to retain it. This should make it clear to the challenger that perceptions of the book's suitability vary. A challenger could, at this point, acknowledge the diversity of opinions and take personal responsibility for managing her or his own choices about reading material. But what happens is often the opposite, with the challenger becoming indignant and continuing the challenge. What is revealed here is the challenger's presumption that his or her opinion is somehow privileged over the opinions of others, that it represents a moral absolute. It is a failure of civility.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Australian Reich

The Minister of Propaganda . . . er, sorry . . . Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has gotten a bit miffed about the recent Enemies of The Internet report published by Reporters without Borders. That report notes that nationwide filtering rules now under consideration could place Australia in the same category as China and Iran in terms of internet censorship. In a March 15th article on iTWire, Minister Conroy is described as saying that Reporters Without Borders has been misled about what the government is actually trying to do, and that the comparison with oppressive regimes is unfair. While making this characterization, the Minister offered no details explaining how the Australian plan he is backing is actually different from, say, China's.  The iTWire article also notes:

Senator Conroy said the Refused Classification material targeted by the filter could not be distributed through books, on TV, cinemas or DVD – a ban that is supported by "each and everyone in this chamber.  But apparently this new distribution platform otherwise known as the Internet should be something sacred. It should not have to play by the rules of Australia," Senator Conroy said.

Minister Conroy is quite right, and here is an object lesson against censorship by government. Australia having a well-established history of censorship of books and movies, the extension of that censorship to the internet seems only logical. I'm not sure, though, that the censorship of books and movies in Australia has anything like the stealth that their proposed censorship of the Internet has. The plan allows the national government, in secret, to develop a blacklist of websites to which all Australians will be denied access, and allows that the contents of the blacklist remain a secret. A government website about the plan backhandedly acknowledges this secrecy problem by promising that "The Government will immediately undertake public consultation . . . on additional measures to improve the accountability and transparency of processes that lead to Refused Classification-rated material being placed on the RC Content list."  The public is here being told to allow a secret process to go into effect and trust that the government will make the process more transparent in the future.

The category of materials that the plan would block, everything that Australian law already terms "Refused Classification," is shockingly broad and vague. A government website on the plan summarizes (only summarizes) the material in this category as including: "child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act."  In the U.S., censorship is based mostly on obscenity, a concept that is notoriously difficult to define. The established system of Australian censorship adds at least four categories (crime, violence, drug use, terrorism) that are equally difficult to pin down. Sadly, Australian law has long allowed government suppression of all such content in print and other media, and that suppression is now being extended to the internet.

It seems never to have occurred to Minister Conroy that Australia's problem is not that that it now censors the internet too little, but that it already censors books and other media too much.

Are we in the same situation in the U.S.? Not yet. Far from it in fact. While the censorship of print and other media was once commonplace, courts have been whittling away at it for decades. The federal government is almost entirely out of the censorship business, and even state governments rarely attempt to censor anything, with the exception of pornographic materials that are sufficiently hard core to meet the legal definition of obscenity. Censorship of other materials continues to happen on a very small scale, a school district here, a public library there. These instances of censorship are often illegal, and are easily overturned in court, if anybody has the presence of mind to challenge them.

But the internet is frightening to governments. Since websites are hosted on computers around the world, no national government can legislate content restrictions that work. The uncontrollability of the internet seems to raise the hackles of governments everywhere, even in the U.S.  Leaping ahead of its historical respect for Freedom of Expression, the U.S. government tried to extend censorious control over the internet. Its first two attempts, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) were quickly overturned in the courts. The third and greatly reduced attempt, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), is currently in effect, applying only in schools and libraries that accept certain government monies, and allowed by the courts only because the law permits adults to have the required filter turned off if they want to surf the web without it.

These trends should be as disturbing to North Americans as they are to at least some Australians. Within the U.S. government, the legislative branch demonstrated, by attempting to implement the CDA and COPA, that it was willing to ignore traditional respect for Free Speech and to trample basic civil liberties underfoot. We were spared this by an alert judicial branch, not by legislative competence. In Australia, in a legal system only a little different from our own, the national government is poised to take control of internet content to a degree that U.S. legislators never dared to dream possible. Except now they have an example to follow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

USC 254(h)(6)(D)

My title probably scares some readers away, and well it should, because this post involves a detailed look at one paragraph of legal code.

SafeLibraries has made a number of groundless claims about libraries perpetrating fraud in claiming compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). His idea is that some libraries are claiming to be CIPA-compliant in order to receive government funds, but are lying in claiming that compliance. His evidence is the assertion by some library patrons that other patrons are viewing online pornography at these CIPA-compliant libraries. I accept as fact that this is happening. How that is evidence of fraud on the part of the library is hard to follow, however, and Safelibraries is vague and evasive about the logical steps involved.

This vagueness gained a small degree of clarity in a recent exchange of comments between SafeLibraries and me regarding his post of March 11th (yes, we're almost speaking again). Central to his claim of fraud is that, under the CIPA, libraries cannot allow an adult patron to disable the filter on a computer he or she is using, without the intervention of library staff. He has made this claim in other posts as well, asserting that the patron must ask a library employee to disable the filter, and asserting that allowing adult patrons to disable their own filters makes the libraries' claims of CIPA-compliance fraudulent.

SafeLibraries has indicated that he might explain this in a post on his blog.  I certainly look forward to seeing how he manages to explain his particular interpretation of the law. But I also want to be proactive here, explaining what the CIPA actually says, and what the FCC has said about interpreting the CIPA.

The relevant paragraph from the CIPA is U.S.C. 254(h)(6)(d), which reads:

(D) Disabling during adult use
An administrator, supervisor, or other person authorized by the certifying authority under subparagraph (A)(i) may disable the technology protection measure concerned, during use by an adult, to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose.
 This can be rendered into plainer English by substituting some of the terms. The "certifying authority under subparagraph (A)(i)" is, simply, the "library," meaning a library that is certifying that it is in compliance with the CIPA. The "technology protection measure concerned" is the "filter," meaning the hardware and software that filters internet content on a particular library computer. Rewriting the paragraph with those substitutions makes the meaning clearer, without changing that meaning:
An administrator, supervisor, or other person authorized by the library may disable the filter, during use by an adult, to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose.
Now some legal experts have argued that this implies that the patron and the person who actually does the disabling of the filter must be two different persons. Other legal experts have argued that this paragraph says no such thing. Personally, I don't see any validity in arguing that two people have to be involved. What the law says is that a library can authorize some "other person" to disable the filter. The law could have gone on to narrow the definition of "other person," could have stated that the "other person" had to be in some kind of official relationship with the library, could have specified some kind of process for designating official "filter disablers," or simply could have said explicitly that the patron could not be such an "other person." But the law says none of these things. Remember, too, that this clause does not just apply to the library-patron relationship, but also applies to library employees who are using computers in some office that is not accessible to the public. In that situation, the "adult" who is using the computer and the "person authorized" to disable the filter are one and the same individual. This clause makes no distinction between that transaction and a transaction between a librarian and a patron. A library can, therefore, authorize a patron to disable the filter on his or her own behalf. Maybe the issue, then, is what "authorized" means. Maybe it doesn't just mean "permitted." Maybe there has to be a formal authorization process, even though the law makes no mention of such. Then all the library has to do is put up a sign saying "we authorize adult patrons to disable the internet filter on library computers they are using." This would comply fully with the law. Even if my own logic here is faulty, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which administers compliances with the CIPA, has pointedly refused to require that a patron go to a library employee to request disabling of the filter. In 2001, in order 01-120, the FCC acknowledged the many problems such an interpretation could involve, since librarians are not really in a position to to judge the lawfulness of a patron's intended use of the internet, and will be bothered with constant requests for disabling. Referring specifically to 254(h)(6)(d), the FCC states:
"We decline to promulgate rules mandating how entities should implement these provisions. Federally-imposed rules directing school and library staff when to disable technology protection measures would likely be overbroad and imprecise, potentially chilling speech, or otherwise confusing schools and libraries about the requirements of the statute. We leave such determinations to the local communities, whom we believe to be most knowledgeable about the varying circumstances of schools or libraries within those communities."
In essence, the FCC has given CIPA-compliant libraries written permission to make their own decisions about whether an adult patron must go to a library employee to request that the filter be disabled or can disable the filter without any staff intervention. Regardless of the "correct" interpretation of the legal code, then, the FCC is not going to proceed against a library for allowing patrons to disable their own filters. If one insists that the law requires library staff to intervene in disabling the filter, then you could also insist that allowing a patron to disable the filter without staff intervention constitutes fraud under the CIPA.  It would be a fraud without consequence, however, since the FCC is not going to demand the return of any government funds or de-certify a library's statement of compliance on this basis.
Suppose I'm just entirely wrong about all of this. Suppose that a patron cannot be allowed to disable the filter without the involvement of library staff.  Then we are left in a situation of pure idiocy. An adult patron who wants to surf the web unfiltered has to go to a library employee to request the filter be disabled. Per the Supreme Court's US v. ALA decision, the library employee cannot ask the patron for a reason, but must disable the filter upon demand.The staff are reduced to mere robots, automatically disabling the filter without thought or analysis anytime an adult patron so demands. Such staff intervention adds no value and is thus a complete waste of time. While some libraries might make their own choice to waste their labor resources this way, it is perfectly ridiculous for the law to require them to do so against their will.  
Which brings us right back to square zero with SafeLibraries' claims of fraud. If he's right and I'm wrong, then we'll have the FCC proceeding against libraries for CIPA fraud over a ridiculous technicality, the claim that the library allowed the patrons to unblock filters without staff intervention, even though said staff intervention would make absolutely no difference to the outcome. Whether library staff disable the filter or the patron disables the filter without staff intervention, the filter is still disabled. And a patron surfing the web without the filter might view materials that the filter would have blocked. The mere fact that a patron was viewing material that the filter would have blocked is in no way evidence of fraud on the part of the library, since the library could simply have disabled the filter when the patron so demanded, and the law requires the library to do so.
Perhaps SafeLibraries' analytical muddle arises from a failure to distinguish two separate areas of law: the CIPA and Obscenity.  If it is criminal in a given library to view certain kinds of pornographic images, that is the result of the applicable state and local Obscenity laws, and has nothing at all to do with the CIPA. If a patron requests that the filter be disabled, and then uses that unfiltered library computer to view images that are illegally obscene in the jurisdiction in which the library operates, that is matter for local or state police (under some circumstance even the FBI), but any prosecution of that matter has nothing to do with the CIPA.  
Sound logic is eventually inescapable. Increasingly, it appears that SafeLibraries' deafness and blindness to what the law actually says is entirely deliberate.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Enemies of the Internet 2010

An international press group, Reporters Without Borders, has recently published a report on internet freedom around the world. Considering factors such as national content filters, user anonymity, and government monitoring of internet use, the group has identified countries that have, or are considering, excessive controls over what their citizens can find on the web.

The group's website provides both a summary and a detailed report on their findings.  They note that:
The “Enemies of the Internet” list drawn up again this year by Reporters Without Borders presents the worst violators of freedom of expression on the Net: Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
The report describes these countries as using "massive filtering" to maintain "tight control over the Web’s political and social content."

A second category lists those countries that are "under surveillance."  Without changes in thinking and law, these countries seem headed toward stronger controls and a place on the "enemies" list. Russia and Turkey, for example, are in this category, as are some more noticeably democratic countries, such as Australia and South Korea.

Oddly omitted from the report is New Zealand, which is in the process of implementing a government controlled black list of internet sites that are to become invisible to the public  So far, Internet Service Providers are complying only on a voluntary basis, and that might be one reason New Zealand has been overlooked.  Their implementation of this system is also quite recent, and the omission might be just a question of timing.  See a March 14th article in the New Zealand Herald.

Australia's system, also a government-controlled blacklist, has gathered a lot more press coverage and has generated more debate.  It has yet to be implemented, but some in the government seem determined to move forward in spite of considerable resistance. See, for example, a March 13th article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

These plans are surprising in countries that are theoretically modern, western, and democratic. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of plans such a Australia's is that the government determines in secret which websites go on the blacklist, and the list itself remains a secret. In some countries, of course, such secrecy would be commonplace. In more open societies, however, it is difficult to comprehend what would motivate government officials to operate in so clandestine a manner. Secrecy and censorship are a dangerous combination, leading inevitably to abuse of power.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Internet Freedom Act of 2010?

It's just a bill in committee. Far from finalized, it could easily be changed, might die in committee, or otherwise disappear. But it's intriguing nonetheless. Apparently, some congressional representatives feel a need to respond to some of the more egregious forms of internet censorship now going on around the world. They're probably thinking of the well-documented standoff between Google corp. and the government of China, or nearly-as-infamous restrictions in Iran, Tunisia, and some other countries.  If they're more aware of the outside world than most Americans, they might also be thinking of government blacklists of selected internet sites already implemented in New Zealand, close to implementation in Australia, and under consideration in some European countries.

The proposed response is H. R. 4784, the Internet Freedom Act of 2010, presently under consideration in the House Committee on Science and Technology. Clearly intended to be international in scope, the bill says, in part, that "findings" of the U.S. Congress include:  
"The Internet is a transformative force and stands to become the most powerful engine for citizen empowerment, transparency, and the free exchange of ideas ever invented."
"Any government, or government sanctioned, supported, authorized, or endorsed entity, either explicitly or implicitly, that blocks, restricts, controls, or monitors any person's use of the Internet effectively transforms the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance, in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
The short bill gives the following definition of a key term:
"The term 'Internet suppression' means censoring, blocking, monitoring, or restricting access to the Internet, or to content made available via the Internet, by using technologies such as firewalls, filters, and 'black boxes'"
Among the things the bill would suggest that the U.S. Congress "should" do is:
"Support the deployment, at the earliest practicable date, of technologies aimed at defeating state-directed and state-sponsored Internet suppression and the persecution by governments and private entities of those individuals who use the Internet."
This last point would put the U.S. government in the business of funding technologies for bypassing or disabling internet filtering software and/or hardware.

Strong language from government representatives who appear to be laboring under the mythology that censorship is something that happens "over there." As written, at least so far, the bill carves out no exceptions for different types of internet content. Among those governments that this bill would find to be in contravention of various international statements of civil and human rights is that of the United States. The U.S. government still maintains the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), requiring libraries that accept certain government funds to impose internet filters that block access to some kinds of internet content.  It will be interesting to see how this contradiction in U.S. law is resolved, assuming the Internet Freedom Act of 2010 goes forward.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Obsession (Again)

ob·ses·sion  (b-sshn, b-) n.
1. Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.
2. A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion.
--American Heritage Dictionary

I've started a post about SafeLibraries this was before, and here we go again. His post today continues his claim that patrons viewing porn at the CIPA-compliant Brooklyn Public Library is evidence that the library is committing fraud.  He has now taken this absurdity several steps further, claiming that the library is conspiring to cover up the fraud and has even managed to fool independent auditors who found the library to be fully in compliance with the CIPA.

There is, of course, a far simpler, even obvious, explanation of the observable facts. That is to acknowledge that the CIPA allows a library to permit adult patrons to turn the required internet filter off. Allowing adults to deactivate the filter was part of the original CIPA law, and was expanded and strengthened in the US v. ALA Supreme Court Decision. Since an adult has the legal right to deactivate the required internet filter on demand, the simple fact that an adult patron viewing online pornography is not evidence of any kind of violation of the CIPA. The auditors, unlike SafeLibraries, understood that, and so were correct in their conclusion that the library was in full compliance with CIPA requirements. No conspiracy required. SafeLibraries' obsession blinds him to the simple facts of the matter.

And is it a fact, rather than just my interpretation, that adults have the legal right to deactivate the filter? I close with a quote from Order 03-188 from the Federal Communications Commission, which administers compliance with the CIPA. The elipses are as in the original:
In upholding CIPA, the Supreme Court emphasized “the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled,” and that a patron who encounters a blocked site … need only ask a librarian to unblock it (or at least in the case of adults) disable the filter.” The plurality also highlighted the government’s acknowledgment at oral argument that “a patron would not ‘have to explain … why he was asking a site to be unblocked or the filtering to be disabled.’” 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Educating the Educators

With apologies to the able and competent school administrators we find in many districts around the country, bumbling censorship attempts such as those that happened recently in Riverside County, California, and Culpeper County, Virginia, call attention to a crying need to educate the educators. Some public school administrators seem just to have a propensity for censorship, perhaps arising from their political alliances, fear of parental displeasure, or an excessive tendency to act as a parent to students who are not really their children. Clearly, a lack of knowledge of Free Speech law and court precedents is a large factor. But whatever the root causes, there always seem to be some administrators who are willing to sneak into the library at night to remove copies of Catcher in the Rye, or tear a page out of a book of poetry, or require parental permission slips to allow students to read Harry Potter books, or remove the dictionary from classrooms because it contains dirty words. All of these have really happened. Courts have intervened in many such cases, forcing school districts to return books to the shelves and remove restrictions. Yet there seems to be a lack of institutional learning, with each new administration repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.

In too many instances it is publicity, not administrative competence, that decides the outcome.  We have no way to measure the hidden cases, but it seems that where censorship succeeds, it succeeds by silence. If there is no public outcry, an act of censorship can remain in place, swept quietly under the rug. Courts, after all, cannot intervene in matters that have not been brought before them by somebody with a complaint. On the other hand, When censorship has been averted or overturned, this has almost always resulted from some individual or group 1) noticing that a violation of Free Speech has occurred or is about to occur and 2) raising a ruckus about it.  

So notice. And Raise a ruckus.

It is increasingly clear that this is exactly why we need events like Freedom to Read Week and Banned Books Week. It is a natural instinct for at least some public officials to censor whatever they can get away with censoring. Anxious to be seen as proactive, and uncomprehending of the ethical and legal implications, they take rushed and ill-considered action. They'll make ridiculous statements like, "we don't support censorship, we just want to remove this book," without recognizing the depth of their self-contradiction. The inoculation against this disease is an alert and aware public.

When school censorship happens, or is about to happen, it is up to that alert and aware public to educate the educators -- the principals, superintendents and school boards that make the decisions. Many of them NEED to be taught:

  1. While the power of a school district to regulate the content of educational materials is great, that power has its limits.
  2. There are parents and other citizens in the district who are aware of, and opposed to, censorship in their schools.
  3. Censorship will not be allowed to sneak by unnoticed: newspapers will be called and the ACLU will be notified.
  4. Minors have Free Speech rights.
  5. Courts have intervened in many instances of school censorship.

This might sound rather basic, especially to those less censoriously inclined. But this is exactly the little bit of knowledge some school administrators so painfully lack.  

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Once a Censor, Always a Censor

In January the Menifee Union School District in Riverside County, California, made itself infamous for pulling copies of the Merriam-Webster's dictionary from elementary school classrooms because the book contained dirty words. A fascinating article that appeared on February 25th in the Press Enterprise puts that attempt at censorship into a broader perspective.

The article recounts the long and sordid history of censorship in parts of Riverside County. Recently, the town of Temecula was criticized by the National Coalition against Censorship for removing a painting of a nude woman from an art exhibit located in a city-owned building.  In 2008 some residents complained about a performance of the Vagina Monologues at a city-owned theater. Censorious challenges in the area date back at least to 1994, and have included books like The Kite Runner, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, a children's book titled The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, and the movie Showgirls.

While censorship of library books is, to those of us who value libraries highly, especially barbaric, censorship itself knows no boundaries. The underlying motivation is the same, whether removing a book from a library or a painting from an art exhibit: one person's certainty that his or her personal values should determine the ideas and expressions that others can and cannot know about.

The article quotes one Temecula resident as aptly summing up the censorious mindset:
'While saying she doesn't support censorship, [she] said "I'm into acting responsibly when an individual's freedom of speech is viewed as potentially harmful and intimidating to another person's belief system."'
We've seen this over and over again, in West Bend, WI, in Leesburg, FL, and countless other towns. First the denial, the claim that what the censor wants is not censorship, requiring us to abandon all logic so we can  believe that removing a book or removing a painting or shutting down a performance from public display could possibly be called anything else. This is followed immediately by a two-pronged attack on Free Speech itself. The first prong of that attack is to claim that one person's expression, mere expression, is "potentially harmful and intimidating" to another person's beliefs. The second prong is to assert that a person holding such fragile beliefs has some kind of right never to see or hear anything that questions, challenges, or offends those beliefs.

Freedom of Speech directly entails that some people are going to be offended. Living in a pluralistic democracy requires each of us to accept the fact that we will sometimes see or hear things we don't agree with or don't approve of. As the US Supreme Court wrote in the 1969 case Street v. New York, "It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers. "