The urge to regulate expression is often found in the very institutions where
one might expect to find more deference to First Amendment rights and values —
Congress, state legislatures, local governments, even the religious and academic
communities. The unsurprising exception to this tendency among major U.S.
institutions is the public library.
The library, after all, is a monument to the best impulses in the human mind
and spirit. The library is where people are transformed because knowledge is
treasured, where freedom of speech and conscience are respected. For those
reasons and more, the library has long been a sanctuary for the First
Among all the shapes and forms expression assumes in the technological era,
books remain the library’s essential resource. To librarians, books are to be
revered and protected. Librarians are moved to be even more protective of books
when they see that outside the library walls, school officials cut and rip pages
from texts, judges jail comic book and magazine vendors, and law enforcement
authorities subpoena bookstore records.
Unfortunately, campaigns to suppress speech are neither far-removed nor
abstract for the nation’s librarians. They are ever mindful of their charge to
protect the material they hold in the public’s name for its benefit. As a
result, libraries and librarians are frequent targets for those who sometimes
believe that speech in America is too free.
In addition, hundreds of challenges are mounted every year against books
ranging from perennial favorites like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn to contemporary bestsellers such as David Guterson’s novel
Snow Falling on Cedars. Political leaders and ordinary citizens in at
least 20 states have tried to get the popular Harry Potter books removed from
library shelves as well as classrooms and bookstores.
Driving force of many restrictions: the public
In the main,
government restrictions on library materials are prompted by public complaints.
Government officials are ever mindful of the importance their constituents place
on family values, moral sensibilities and protecting children from indecent
Internet content and other materials. So, directly or indirectly, ordinary
citizens are the driving force behind the challenges to unrestricted access to
Internet content in public libraries.
Often, that has meant local libraries are
besieged with complaints about access to indecent material. Family-friendly
organizations have often tried to mobilize their supporters in efforts to
control access to certain materials available in libraries, especially the
Individuals have also taken up the fight on their own. An example of this
occurred in Livermore, Calif., in 1998. A parent of a child who used the
library’s Internet access to download pornographic pictures filed a lawsuit to
force the library to install filtering software on computers in the library. The
state superior court dismissed the case, saying the lawsuit could be barred by
Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
That ruling, however, came before the Children's Internet Protection Act.
Children's Internet Protection Act
Frequently, new federal laws
place requirements on public libraries that librarians
believe violate the First Amendment rights of their patrons. For example,
the Children's Internet Protection Act, passed by Congress in December 2000,
requires that libraries receiving funds under any of three different federal
programs must install filters on all computers to prevent children from being
exposed to indecent material.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the sponsors of the bill, cited the growing use of the Internet in schools and libraries and said that “our children need to be protected from the harmful material that comes with it.” In committee hearings he noted that most children’s Internet activities take place outside the home, where parents cannot monitor what children view.
“Parents have the right to feel safe,” McCain said, such that “when they send their child to school, when they drop their child off at the public library, someone is going to be looking out for their children, protecting them. That’s what this bill is all about.”
Before libraries can receive federal funds, they must have a "technology
protection measure" in place that prevents access by children and adults alike
to images considered obscene or child pornography and, for children, images
considered "harmful to minors."
The American Library Association went to court to challenge the requirement.
In 2002, a special federal panel ruled the law was a violation of the First
Amendment. On June 23, 2003, however, the Supreme Court reversed the panel's
decision, ruling 6-3 that the law should be reinstated. In United
States v. American Library Association, the Court said that if libraries
wished to offer unfiltered access to their computers, they could forgo federal
On July 24, 2003, the Federal Communications Commission released its order on
compliance with CIPA, which must begin on July 1, 2004, for most public
Such campaigns are not just about the Internet, either. They also are about
the library’s video offerings, its magazines and journals, and the books it
The people who work in, make policy for or support the libraries usually are
not well prepared to defend themselves when library holdings, in whatever media,
are assailed in their communities. Invariably, the attack is swift,
across-the-board, well-organized and well-financed. The proponents of
restrictions tell tales of sexual horror rending the moral fabric of the
community and endangering the children. By the time community leaders and
library supporters muster a response, the problem is publicized, the public mind
fairly well made up and the solution determined.
A lot is on the line in these local struggles. If a library wavers, folds or
suffers defeat anywhere, the fallout reverberates throughout society. Political
leaders are emboldened and encouraged to propose even more policies and laws
limiting freedom of expression.
It is a daunting challenge for libraries. Elected officials want to be on the
right side of these issues, meaning the side of values, decency and simple
solutions. Community leaders are slow to get involved and quick to compromise.
Religious leaders don’t want to be seen as permitting indecent material. This,
in turn, allows the community to avoid the larger issues behind efforts to
regulate access to a wide variety of material in the library.
These campaigns are not just about sexual speech. They also address hate
speech, violence, feminism, New Age religion, alternative lifestyles and other
kinds of expression some find offensive or inimical to their view of the
And too often, the campaigns aren’t just about the library. They also are
about schools, museums and other institutions. They are about who sets and
controls the intellectual, cultural and moral agenda for the community.
Whether censorship or surveillance, such developments conspire to interrupt,
delay or halt the libraries’ civic and intellectual duty to satisfy the
constitutional right of Americans to reasonably unfettered access to a wide
variety of information.
Most librarians view these assaults on their First Amendment traditions with
deep concern. Anything of consequence in the care of libraries offends someone
somewhere, of course. The challenge for public libraries is to find ways to
remind political, educational and moral leaders that to remove or restrict
access to controversial material is to invite the ultimate suppression of all
Updated November 2006