Access Denied: Library Filter Fail

by Justin Brown

In the course of human events, there are ironic situations that are so absolute and absurd that it’s nauseating. I had such a sickly-sweet experience while researching source-articles for my CBLDF piece about role-playing-game censorship at my local Library in Indiana, Pennsylvania (about an hour north-east of Pittsburgh for those unfamiliar with the area).

I was lazing on a floor-level gaming chair in the comic, graphic-novel and art book section that I frequent (I read voraciously, and not just comics; novels, short-stories news and research articles etc.). While re-reading and taking notes on various articles for my piece, I was quite shocked when I received a “access denied” message after typing in the URLs for’s and ICv2’s articles on banned and censored RPGs. I mean, an article about censorship being blocked? Who would of thought, it figures! (Sorry Alanis Morisette fans, I couldn’t resist)

The words “Access Denied!” were in black on a ominously crimson background. At first, I thought I might have pasted in an incomplete hyperlink. This was not the case, as I typed it in and read through the entire “denied” message, which revealed that the site was blocked because it mention the words “erotic”, “erotic-fantasy” and the two most confusing of all “gay” and “FAQ.”

As I was confused and upset (and I didn’t want to appear to be some voyeur-library-pervert) I confronted the librarian (whose name is withheld for privacy and protection) about the situation. The librarian told me that though the internet filters tend to “over-reach,” that they had to follow policies and guidelines set up by the state, or the library could risk losing funding.

The librarian was referring to Pennsylvania’s adaptation of the Children’s Internet Protection act (more information on CIPA from the FCC here). The specific statute requires public libraries to enable internet filters to protect children from indecent and objectionable material, or they could lose funding.

From the Pennsylvania statute (a more detailed version can be found through this link under Title 24 P.S. Education, chapter 16A):

“Implementation and enforcement of policy.–The governing body of the public library shall take such steps as it deems appropriate to implement and enforce the requirements of subsection (a). These steps shall include, but need not be limited to, the following:
(1) the use of software programs designed to block access by library patrons and employees to visual depictions of obscenity, child pornography or material that is harmful to minors; or”
(2) the selection of online servers that block access by library patrons and employees to visual depictions of obscenity, child pornography or material that is harmful to minors.

Withholding of funding from school entities and public libraries.–The secretary shall withhold a portion of State funding to a school entity or public library if the school entity or public library:
(1) fails to submit an acceptable-use policy within the time prescribed in this act;
(2) submits an acceptable-use policy that is not reasonably designed to achieve the requirements of section 4 or 5; or
(3) is not enforcing or is substantially disregarding its acceptable-use policy.”

According to an article on the American Library Association website by Nancy Kranich, an Oregon congressman, whom originally battled for his state’s CIPA law, had a similar ironic epiphany when he discover his own website was being filtered by the same systems he fought for.

From the 2004 ALA article:

“When Republican Jeffrey Pollock ran for Congress in Oregon in 2000, he promoted the use of federally mandated Internet blocking software in public schools and libraries. But after discovering that his campaign Web site was blocked, he joined librarians, civil liberties groups, parents, children, and Web publishers seeking to overturn the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). That law, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, mandates use of blocking software on public library and school computers as a condition for eligibility to receive e-rate discounts or federal grants under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).”

My problem with this isn’t keeping children away from pornography, violent images and other adult material. I do, however, have issue with filters that “…sweep too broadly, blocking only some sites with indecent materials while restricting access to thousands of legal and useful resources…” as the ALA article states. Another dangerous problem is  possible; such as severe punishments of library-personnel for failing to enforce such policies, whether purposeful or otherwise.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state with over-reaching CIPA laws. In 2010 the CBLDF joined a coalition of other First Amendment advocates to block an Alaska internet censorship law that was too broad and overbearing.

From the 2010 CBLDF article:

“Signed in May by Governor Parnell and effective July 1, the law, Section 11.61.128 of the Alaska Statutes, imposes two severe restrictions on the distribution of constitutionally protected speech on the Internet and in book and video stores and libraries. The law could make anyone who operates a website or communicates through a listserv criminally liable for nudity or sexually related material, if the material can be considered ‘harmful to minors’ under the law’s definition. In effect, it bans from the Internet anything that may be ‘harmful to minors,’ including material adults have a First Amendment right to view. Also, a bookseller, video retailer, or librarian can be prosecuted if he or she is unaware that it contains nudity or sexual content and unknowingly sells, rents, or loans a book, video, magazine or other media to a minor whether online or in a brick and mortar location. Violators of either part of the law can be sentenced to up to two years in prison, must register as sex offenders and could be forced to forfeit their business.”

‘This overbroad and unconstitutional law is a clear and present danger to cartoonists and retailers in the State of Alaska,’ says CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein. ‘The internet is the modern marketplace of ideas, and this law infringes on the ability of artists to present works they feel are within their rights to offer online. Likewise, the penalties to retailers are too severe. No retailer can know the contents of each and every book they sell, and the risk of prison time and being listed as a sex offender for selling the wrong book to the wrong customer will impose an impermissible chill on their right to sell protected speech.’”

I mentioned that one of the words (from the “denied” message concerning the article) that set off the filter was the word “gay.” Now, I should disclose that my town is not comprised of intolerant plebeians, and that I truly believe that my public library, its volunteers and staff do a superior job at keeping the shelves stalked with important, pertinent and even vastly challenged and banned books, comics, graphic-novels etc. I was also able to access various lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender advocacy websites at the library without being denied access. Though, the fact that “gay” is a term that can potentially set off the filter is alarming.

An article by the CBLDF about the Japanese government banning manga, anime and other forms of media that they claim is harmful to youth in relation to sexuality, can illustrate worse-case-scenarios.

From the January 13, 2012 CBLDF article:

“In 2010, the Tokyo government signed the Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths, a vaguely-worded bill that restricts the sale and rental of manga, anime, games, and other media that can be “considered harmful to a minor’s mental health regarding sexuality.”

To further illustrate the contradictory nature of these filters, I searched the library database for the graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson that has been banned and challenged internationally. They even had three Judy Blume books (that I ended up checking out), Forever, Are you there God? It’s me Margaret and Tiger Eyes, which are still recognized as commonly challenged and banned by the ALA. “We even carry Fifty Shades of Grey,” (a commonly challenged erotic fantasy novel published in April) the librarian said to me while discussing the irony of my experience. It can be very unnerving to see a library cave to such asinine laws, when they are considered bastions of free access to information.

These kind of laws violate our rights to free expression and free access to information, and as in the examples listed, the can do more harm than good. To speak out against library-internet-filter- laws that restrict access, contact your local library or congressmen, or support organizations like the ALA and CBLDF.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Justin Brown is a 2010 journalism graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.