Censorship at the Local Library
By Charles M. Heinlen
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,
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
to go home