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Censorship at the Local Library

By Charles M. Heinlen

7/15/04

Upside Down World

Wenatchee, Washington is an odd place. Situated at the eastern foot of the Cascades in Chelan County, Wenatchee is plagued by a sagging agricultural economy and is still reeling from a few recent high profile scandals. Perhaps the worst is yet to come, compliments of the local library system and its draconian policy of refusing to disable Internet filters for all patrons, adults included.

It is perhaps because of, or in spite of this, that the town of 28,000, 75% of it white, put up a powerful veneer of small town, “Mayberry-esque” Americana. Granted, the locals seem friendly enough - though most of them look right out of 1982; the radio stations suck in an entirely predictable, small-town sort of way; the local paper is heavily laden with high school sports; and the tallest building stands an impressive nine stories.

It has its bright spots, like Cuc Trans, a kick-ass little Vietnamese café right in the middle of downtown, which sits across from a respectable Mongolian grille, located across the river from a damn decent Chinese restaurant in the town of East Wenatchee. One look at the place and it easily takes the “most average of the average” award. For those who tire of the gridlock of any major city along the I-5 corridor, Wenatchee’s surface appears idyllic.

When it comes to matters of the Constitution, the façade quickly drops. Ask any signature gatherer what sort of luck he/she has had over there, or better yet, ask any local when the last big protest of anything in particular hit town, or ask yourself why it is that you haven’t noticed a single homeless person begging for change throughout the course of an entire day. One look at Rocky’s House of Guns (a local landmark/institution), and it becomes obvious that the Second Amendment is thriving. This may not be a bad thing to those familiar with the Constitution, but a short trip to the North Central Regional Library (NCRL) will show you that freedom of speech, as per the First Amendment, does not exist in this town.

In 1999, through a generous grant from the Gates foundation, NCRL thrust all 28 of its branches online, giving free public access to residents of Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, and Okanogan counties. With nothing more than a few Macs and an idea, tens of thousands of patrons scattered over hundreds of miles in those four counties had internet access where before there was (and still is, mostly), no public access at all. From day one NCRL’s machines were heavily filtered, as anyone who’s ever danced with N2H2’s onerous BESS can attest. Though the ACLU had expressed some interest in NCRL back then, along came the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) which required the said filtering, and the libertarian community momentarily waned while the CIPA ran its course through the courts. Sadly, they appear to have not recovered appreciably since.

On June 28th, 2003, CIPA’s run had finished, going all the way through the United States Supreme Court, where it was decided that not only was the filtering legal, but also mandatory for any library receiving “e-rate” funding (monies provided by the Federal Government to libraries that provide Internet access to patrons). There was a caveat in the 6-2 decision however: The filtering only passed Constitutional muster due to the ease with which it could be disabled for any and all patrons age 17 and over who so request. No actual reason need be given the Justices said, all any adult patron need do is ask. Justice Kennedy even went so far as to state that any library unwilling and/or unable to disable said filtering for any adult upon request and in a timely manner could be subject to litigation. Problem solved, right? Not quite.

In early July 2004, my computer crashed and I had to use an NCRL branch library some 90 miles north of Wenatchee, in the small town of Omak. Perhaps due to my email handle, (Cannibal Chuck) I was utterly unable to log into my Yahoo! account. Repeated requests to have the filter disabled were denied, and numerous communications with NCRL Director Dean Marney, and Assistant Director Dan Howard had no effect. Howard said that libraries across the nation were scrambling to understand exactly what the Supreme Court ruling meant, noted that they were proceeding “cautiously and deliberately,” and noted the FCC had given all the nation’s libraries until July 1s, 2004 to comply with the filter-disabling provision. Howard then assured me via email that they would be in compliance well before then-most likely by January 2004.

Predictably enough, January came and went, as did the FCC deadline, and even now the filters remain in place for all-adults and children alike. Last month, while searching for a Chilton’s manual to tell me how to remove, repair, and replace the distributor in an old Ford, I was handed an envelope by the same Omak librarian who finally gave up on debate and now prefers to shy away, cringe, and likely start mainlining xanax every time yours truly hits the door. The envelope’s contents consisted of a weak apology stapled to a copy of an article from the Wenatchee World, both of which explained that on May 13t, NCRL’s board of directors decided, without any direct public input, to continue filtering in spite of the mandates of both the Supreme Court and the FCC. They made the usual claims of “protecting the community” and of “keeping children safe”, and then made their decisions as if they had not only the right and moral authority to censor, but also some misguided communal obligation to save us from ourselves.

I always assumed that parenting was the sole province of parents - a notion which seems diametrically opposed to NCRL philosophy. Strange also that at an admittedly immature 38, I have no more access to information in my local library than would be granted a toddler. Perhaps it’s my fault for not limiting my surfing to Disney instead of questioning a public institution; but even in this post 9/11 legislative quagmire from which we as a nation seem so blissfully unwilling to extract ourselves, visions of Mickey Mouse seem presently and patently un-American.

But I guess that’s just the way it goes in the land of the free. If NCRL has found any use at all for the First Amendment, it’s likely just a pattern on their toilet paper, or maybe an embroidered decoration on their doormats.

It does beg one small question however: How the hell can this (still) great nation of ours run around “liberating” others when we ourselves are so far from free?

Any who are sufficiently interested/incensed can email Assistant Director Dan Howard at dhoward@ncrl.org and make their feelings known. Additionally the ACLU would likely appreciate complaints and commentary regarding NCRL, as would any other pertinent organization that happens to cross your mind as you’re composing the usual barrage of well-placed angry emails regarding such an egregious breach of speech.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano