Missouri Library Sued for Barring Wiccan Websites

Posted Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - 12:54
A painted Wheel of the Year, a Wiccan symbol, at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, England, displaying all eight of the Sabbats.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the Salem (Mo.) Public Library for allegedly blocking websites related to the modern Pagan religion Wicca.

Salem resident Anaka Hunter said that when she tried to access websites about Wicca, Native American religions, and astrology in July 2010 for her personal research, the library’s filtering software blocked them, the January 10 Salem News reported. Hunter said Salem Public Library Director Glenda Wofford unblocked portions of the sites for her, but much of the material remained inaccessible.

Filed January 3, the lawsuit (PDF file) claims that Wofford said she would only unblock the sites for patrons who had a “legitimate reason” to view them, and that Wofford had an “obligation” to report people to the “proper authorities” if she felt they would misuse the information they were attempting to access.

Wofford said in a January 3 post to the Washington, D.C.–based newspaper The Hill’s Hillicon Valley technology blog that she would have been happy to unblock the specific websites Hunter sought, but Hunter refused on privacy grounds to specify which sites she wanted to access. “It’s not our intent to prohibit reasonable use of the internet for research or any other legitimate reason,” said Wofford. “All they have to do is ask, and we’ll unblock the sites.”

“It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint,” Hunter stated in an ACLU press release. “It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.” 

According to the ACLU, Hunter tried to complain to the library board in November 2010 but was brushed off. “Rather than dismissing the concerns of its patrons, the library should make every effort to ensure that its filtering software doesn’t illegally deny access to educational resources on discriminatory grounds,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “The library is the last place that should be censoring information about different cultures.”

Although the Children’s Internet Protection Act requires libraries to install filtering software blocking visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or material deemed harmful to minors, the ACLU said the Netsweeper software used by the library went further and blocked sites marked as “occult,” as well as placing sites related to Native American culture and Wiccan faith in the blocked category “criminal skills.”

“The library has no business blocking these websites as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal’ in the first place and certainly shouldn’t be making arbitrary follow-up decisions based on the personal predilections of library staff,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Public libraries should be facilitating access to educational information, not blocking it.”