In Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451, books are burned as part of an extreme act of government censorship. Recently, it seems a Missouri public library was engaging in the 21st century equivalent of book burning by blocking access to Pagan websites.
In a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, the organization said that Salem Public Library, located in a predominantly Christian community of 5,000 in the Ozarks, was blocking access to sites about Wicca and related topics.
The suit alleged that the library’s web filters prevented access to sites such as the official webpage of the Wiccan Church; the Wikipedia entry for Wicca; Astrology.com; and the Encyclopedia on Death and Dying.
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri sued on behalf of Anaka Hunter, who discovered she was unable to access sites about Native American religions while researching her own heritage. The ACLU said this violated Hunter’s First Amendment rights, and a federal judge agreed this week.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber said some religions were improperly blocked by the library because they were categorized as “occult” or “criminal,” though those settings were turned off before the suit was filed. He ordered that those filters not be reactivated.
Tony Rothert, an attorney for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said in a statement that library censorship has clear limits.
“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures,” he said.
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement that: “Public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”
Library director Glenda Wofford declined to comment for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the library’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment, the newspaper said.
It’s baffling that a government entity thought it was acceptable to take sides on religion and tell people what theological information they can and can’t access. This was an obvious violation of the First Amendment, and it seems the library knew that since it altered its policy even before being brought into court.
This case also shows why the fight for religious liberty is ongoing. Those who seek to restrict beliefs they find offensive work in increasingly creative and subtle ways to impose their opinions on others.
Fortunately in this case, even in a town of only 5,000, someone was paying attention and willing to stand up for the First Amendment. It only takes one person to make a stand, and we are grateful for brave people like Anaka Hunter.