The Supreme Court today ruled that a library’s Internet filter policy does not violate the free speech protections in the Washington State Constitution. The case is Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District, No. 82200-0 (briefs and argument).
The North Central Regional Library District maintains Internet filters on its computers to block websites and images considered “harmful to children.” Library patrons were blocked from accessing numerous websites, including sites about drug and alcohol addiction, an art gallery website, health information websites, the “personals” section of Craigslist.org, the MySpace pages of presidential candidates, the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra website, and womenandguns.com, a site maintained by the Second Amendment Foundation.
Several patrons and the Second Amendment Foundation sued the library in federal court for violating federal and state free speech protections. They claim the library’s filtering policy is overbroad and rises to the level of prior restraint of speech. They also argue that the filtering policy is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech. The U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington asked the Washington Supreme Court to address whether the library’s Internet filtering policy violates the free speech protections in Article 1, Section 5 of the Washington State Constitution.
The Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Barbara Madsen writing, concluded that a library can filter Internet access for all patrons, including adults, without violating the Washington Constitution. The Court wrote that in many cases the Washington Constitution’s protection of free speech is no more expansive than the U.S. Constitution’s. In other contexts, the state constitution affords broader protections. For example, time, place, and manner restrictions on free speech will be upheld only upon a showing of a “compelling state interest.” Additionally, unlike the First Amendment, the state constitution prohibits prior restraints on constitutionally-protected speech.
Analyzing whether the library’s filtering policies were overbroad, Chief Justice Madsen wrote:
The principle that a library has no obligation to provide universal coverage of all constitutionally protected speech applies to Internet access just as it does to the printed word in books, periodicals, and other material physically collected and made available to patrons. “The Internet is simply another method for making information available in a . . . library’” and “is ‘no more than a technological extension of the book stack.’” A.L.A., 539 U.S. at 207 (quoting S. Rep. No. 106-141, at 7 (1999)). Just as it is entitled to exercise its acknowledged discretion in amassing a collection of printed materials physically placed on the shelves in order to carry out its mission, it is entitled to exercise discretion when it comes to Internet access involving its facilities and equipment.
The discretion that public libraries enjoy in selecting materials for their collections is not merely a function of what a library can afford in terms of costs and space . . . . [R]egardless of its resources a library need not place pornographic materials on its shelves, although such materials are constitutionally protected. It need not place children’s comic books on its shelves, although these, too, are constitutionally protected. As another example, if a private collector offered a library a collection of books at an attractive set price for the entire collection and the library purchased the collection, it would not have to include all of the books in its own collection and would not have to make them all available to its patrons.
The plaintiffs also argued that irrespective of the library’s policies, the Internet filtering software used was too aggressive, resulting in overbroad filtering of Internet content. The Court disagreed.
Here, if a library patron wants to access a web site or page that has been blocked by FortiGuard, he or she may send an e-mail to NCRL administrators asking for a manual override of the block. The site or page is reviewed to ascertain whether allowing access would accord with NCRL’s mission, its policy, and CIPA requirements. If not, the request is denied. If the request is approved, access will be allowed on all of NCRL’s public access computers.
Because adults can request and obtain unblocking of erroneously blocked sites, we conclude that on this record no overbreadth problem exists under article I, section 5 as a result of overblocking.
Ultimately, the Court held that just as a library may exercise discretion in its literary acquisitions, it can also decide what Internet content to provide.
Most importantly, just as a public library has discretion to make content-based decisions about which magazines and books to include in its collection, it has discretion to make decisions about Internet content. A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results. It can make the same choices about Internet access.
A public library has traditionally and historically enjoyed broad discretion to select materials to add to its collection of printed materials for its patrons’ use. We conclude that the same discretion must be afforded a public library to choose what materials from millions of Internet sites it will add to its collection and make available to its patrons.
The Court concluded that the filtering policy did not run afoul of the free speech protections in article I, section 5 of the Washington Constitution.
Jim Johnson concurred with the result in a separate opinion, Justice Tom Chambers (joined by Justices Sanders and Stephens) dissented. He wrote:
North Central Regional Library’s Internet filters reach admittedly constitutionally protected speech, and, we are informed, it 'does not and will not disable the filter at the request of an adult person." 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. Concerns that a child might see something unfortunate on the screen must be dealt with in a less draconian manner.