In 2002 Nancy Willard, Executive Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, issued a report that warned of the troubling confluence between content-control software and conservative religious groups.
Willard voiced concerns that the relationships between companies providing web-filtering software to public institutions may be “inappropriately preventing students from accessing certain materials based on religious or other inappropriate bias.” She went on to note that terms like “occult” or “cult” are “frequently applied to any non-traditional religions” and that it would be “unacceptable for schools to block access to non-traditional religious sites.”
Five years earlier, the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association, issued a resolution affirming that “the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights.”
However, today, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, mandates Internet filtering software on any library or K-12 school that receives federal funding. The mandate covers only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors,” but the seeming intersection of religion and content-control software continues to haunt public institutions as web-filtering has become an everyday part of our virtual society.
On January 3rd, 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri announced the filing of a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” It’s alleged that Salem Public Library officials refused to change their filtering policies when challenged, and that the library directory Glenda Wofford intimated that “she had an obligation” to alert the authorities to report those who were attempting to access blocked sites.
This new case not only raises the issue of web filtering in our public institutions, but why an “occult” category is even an option for secular and government-funded filtering clients where such control is unneeded or even illegal. The company that provides filtering services to the Salem Public Library, Netsweeper, currently categorizes several prominent Pagan organization sites as “occult,” including Covenant of the Goddess (COG), Circle Sanctuary, and Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), while more mainstream faith sites are listed under “religion” or “general.”
Media critic and scholar Peg Aloi says she is troubled by the inclusion of Pagan sites in “occult” filters, “since this word is not even necessarily associated with Paganism, Wicca or earth-based spirituality.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, Ph.D., Director of Research, Teaching and Learning at American University Library notes that “whatever the initial intent of the law may have been, the software used to comply with CIPA censors numerous topics that have no bearing on protecting children and the way the software blocks access to information reflects a particular constellation of values. The real consequence is to undermine part of the necessary infrastructure in a democracy by denying citizens the requisite tools to inform themselves through free inquiry.”
The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the “constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.
What is clear is that leaders and clergy within the modern Pagan movement believe that their sites should be readily available when accessing the Internet, and that blocking “occult” sites oversteps the mandate of CIPA and infringes on the Establishment Clause by favoring one religious expression over another.
In a statement, Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of the ADF, said that “only by free access to knowledge can everyone participate in the marketplace of ideas, guaranteeing true freedom for everyone,” while Selena Fox, speaking for Circle Sanctuary, said that they are disappointed in Salem Public Library’s “unwillingness to provide free and equal access to websites containing information on religions such as Wicca, Paganism, Native American traditional ways, and other paths that honor Nature.”
Rachael Watcher, one of the National Public Information Officers for Covenant of the Goddess, a 501c3 organization recognized as such by the United States government for 36 years, added that “the distinction between the labels ‘religious’ and ‘occult’ is an arbitrary one,” and that “one person’s religious group is another person’s occult group.”
It seems clear that no public library should be blocking access to minority religions, as Sylvia Linton, a librarian by profession and a Circle Sanctuary Community member said to me via email: “In this country, with our guarantees of freedom of religion and of speech, librarians respect the diversity of their patrons and allow them access to information without regard to the personal beliefs of the library staff.”
In addition, instances of “overblocking” by web filtering software here at home raise troubling inherent questions of how this technology is used by countries that don’t share our commitment to free speech or access to information. “Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards,” stated Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.
“As a growing compendium of evidence documents, technologies developed by U.S. companies and deployed throughout the country are the same ones being used in places like Syria, Iran, and North Korea — Salem would be wise to distance itself from practices that lump them in with some of the worst human rights violators around the globe.”
The option of an “occult” filter in content-control software should be of great concern to all who value religious liberty. The boundaries of what can be labeled “occult” or “cult” are so porous that it can include everything from information on Yoga to your daily horoscope.
The journalist and author Tom Wolfe once opined that “a cult is a religion with no political power,” an opinion that seems reinforced by the sites blocked by the Salem Public Library. Occult, when used as a term in the realm of Internet filtering, is a religious and cultural value judgment that in no way protects minors from obscene or indecent material within the context of CIPA.
There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. One can only hope that this case goes beyond merely changing policy at Salem Public Library and instead institutes a precedent that changes the filtering industry, removing biased categories that have little purpose in a free society.
Links to full statements gathered for this story: