ACLU Tackles the “Occult” Category in Internet Filtering Software

ACLU Tackles the “Occult” Category in Internet Filtering Software January 4, 2012

Yesterday the ACLU announced that it has filed a lawsuit against a library in Salem, Missouri (download the full complaint) for using Internet filtering software that blocks websites pertaining to Wicca and Native American religions. As Ars Technica notes, sites blocked by the library’s software include Wikipedia’s page on Wicca, but not Christian-run pages that are critical of Pagan religions. According to the ACLU filing, Salem’s library director, Glenda Wofford, said “she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities. While there’s no doubt the press are paying attention to this story because of the “Witch” angle, I am extremely glad the “occult” category on Internet filtering software is finally being pushed into the spotlight.

“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. It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.” – Anaka Hunter, The Associated Press

The default option of filtering occult and Pagan websites is an issue I’ve followed at this site over the years, its existence tied directly to the fact that Internet filtering software was initially developed by and for the Christian market. As such, the inherent values of that demographic are imprinted into the DNA of the web-filtering industry. These programs are then sold to schools, libraries, and government institutions, which can lead to controversy and litigation once individuals realize the bias inherent in the filter. At this point those original biased filtering lists have long since permeated into the secular filter market. Sadly, many (though certainly not all) libraries, schools, and public institutions take a “block everything until someone complains” policy when it comes to this issue.

I sincerely hope that this case goes to trial, as it’s long past time the “occult” filter, which inevitably includes a raft of non-Christian religious sites, was eliminated from any secular context. If a local Catholic parish wants to block a Wikipedia search for Wicca, fine, but no library or school should be engaging in the default restriction of these sites. Nor should any secular institution be purchasing software that was built on the prejudices and misconceptions of conservative Christian list-makers.

Oh, and in a final note, you’ll be glad to know that The Wild Hunt has (so far) escaped being placed in the “occult” category by Netsweeper, the filtering software used by the Missouri Public Library.

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52 responses to “ACLU Tackles the “Occult” Category in Internet Filtering Software”

  1. Trial is one way to “eliminate the occult filter.” If you’re successful at trial. A good settlement might also achieve that goal. As we saw with the tombstones at Arlington, sometimes a settlement can accomplish everything that’s needed. In any event, good for the ACLU. And I’d love to see a “report to the ‘authorities’ from that librarian. 😉

  2. In a way, it’s kind of disappointing that TWH isn’t considered subversive and occult. Obviously, they are not paying attention to all the hard work Jason puts into this blog!

  3. The librarian is going to report someone who reads the “” page on Wicca and Paganism to the authorities. Who will then waste valuable time listening to her and filing paperwork, when they could be investigating actual crimes. Not to mention the funds that’ll be wasted in the lawsuit. Let’s hope the taxpayers of Salem, Missouri view this incident as squandering their money, and reprimand the librarian. At least this might be a warning to others who think that censorship is a good allocation of public money…

  4. The filter is probably marketed way below all other filters. If you want to know if a school is using a filter, have your student search Bing and Google for Pagan, witch & Wicca at school and at home. Don’t forget to check local libraries too.

  5. I’m a library student, and I did a presentation on the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in a class on Information Policy this past fall. Unfortunately, libraries in the USA have to filter if they are public or serve K-12 students because they will lose their E-Rate funding and subsidies that help them provide affordable Internet access to local taxpayers at the library.

    The main issue is preventing children from accessing explicit content, but many of the filtering companies used have conservative Christian affiliations. More conservative states can and do have high-up people pushing for restrictive policies that limit kids’ access to “controversial” content such as different political views, occult resources, and even atheism, and I don’t think there’s any way to prevent such abuses of power in a filtering system.

  6. She’s going to “report them to the authorities” for what? Reading about Wicca on the internet is not a crime. Can you imagine actually calling that into the police station? I think they would probably laugh at her. I really except better from librarians.

  7. This whole concept sounds absurd in this day and time. Quess we still have some backward people in the midwest . I’m just wondering how this got by the folks who run/supervise this public instution, the town leaders should have seen how this would be a problem . Are they that backward as well?Filtering when dealing w/ a child is one thing , but filtering everyone thats another , and also reporting those who do want acsess to occult sites is just a wee bit extreme.And who would she report them to, homeland security maybe?this whole thing seems goofy to me , this woman needs to be dealt with , maybe even fired for her extreme views , in a public place . This type of policy is completly innapropriete in a public library, where open acsess is expected.Kilm

  8. “I don’t think there’s any way to prevent such abuses of power in a filtering system” Yes there is, a settlement that shows these filtering companies that they better not be doing this ! Now, when state officials start meddling with our First Amendment rights, that’s another issue. It does help when you’ve got places like Circle Network’s Lady Liberty League to go to for ideas.

  9. My local library uses a filter, not Netsweeper, but when it blocks access the staff just overrides it, no questions asked. It’s stupid and we shouldn’t have to use it at all. As for the Salem librarian, why would anyone become a librarian if he or she were pro-censorship? Most librarians I know would be ashamed of this woman.

  10. It might be Patheos, Jason. The filter my workplace uses used to filter Wild Hunt. I had to override it when I wanted to read it on my breaks. It doesn’t catch it anymore. Not sure why. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding a blocked website at all. Maybe the IT guy adjusted it? I’ll have to check on that.

  11. I gotta wonder what kind of library program this woman went through that would have forgotten to blatantly reinforce access to information and lack of censorship. Though I do know it’s a pipe dream to hope that all librarians are all in favor of total access to information.

    Soli, with a fresh MLIS

  12. “Of the tree of the knowledge – thou shalt not eat – This is the first positive precept God gave to man; and it was given as a test of obedience, and a proof of his being in a dependent, probationary state.”
    [From Adam Clarke’s commentary on Genesis 2:17]

  13. This about a library in Missouri does not surprise me. I grew up in a small town in Southern Missouri that had a dozen Pentacostal churches, one Catholic church, a Lutheran church and an Episcopal church. It was a widely held opinion that there were twelve “proper” churches, and three “devil” churches. That attitude that is anti-anything that isn’t fundamentalism. (If it ain’t King James, it ain’t the Bible!)

    Even if the case is won in favour of those bringing suit against the library, this a place where many who live there cling just as tightly to the idea of segregation against those who are of a different colour, race, creed, etc. I hope that it can change, but in that particular state it is just as bad as some even further South.

  14. Many of these filter companies have online facilities for you to report inapropriately categorised websites. Whenever I bump into a blocked pagan site I just ask them to review the site and put it in the religion category. Nine times out of ten they do it without question. I think of it as doing my small part to correct the bias.

  15. Soli, my husband has an MLS. He was very angry when I pointed this article out this morning – ranting all day about access to information, lack of censorship, and how librarians are supposed to be neutral and this woman’s actions are blatantly against the law. He’s planning to post it to his library’s listserve and try to let the ALA know, if they don’t already.

  16. Unfortunately a settlement would remove the filter at *this* public library. It would not establish a legal standard by which any future attempt at implementing it becomes a no-brainer. And it would not put the industry on notice that it is engaging in religious discrimination and could be legally liable for it.

    Hence Jason’s hope that it goes to trial. Alas, that takes more money.

  17. This whole issue is deja vu all over again. Pagans raised it when the filtering industry was born of a decision that Internet speech was protected. The software grew out of a market of conservative parents who wanted everthing they wouldn’t let in the house via books or magazines, also barred entry via Internet. They had people on staff trolling the Internet all day looking for objectionable stuff and using their own judgement as to what that was; it, trolling for stuff they didn’t like. The law you cite, a fallback from outright government censorship, created a market for filters, and Pagans yelped at their exclusion. They had some local successes. That was, iirc, in the 1990s.

    This librarian’s attitude that it’s her job to report Internet use is a new wrinkle and quite unprofessional. (Three generations of librarians in my family…)

  18. A lot of librarians don’t actually have an MLIS or MLS degree in MO’s small/rural public libraries. I spent much of my childhood in Canton, MO, and we NEVER had a degreed librarian … you can learn collection development, cataloging, and library management on the job, but I don’t think you can learn about information culture and the right to information access unless you at least do a certificate program.

  19. Well, there are plenty of excellent librarians serving in rural communities that do not have a degree. It can be very difficult for small communities to afford MLS/MLIS-degreed librarians. Even if they don’t have a degree, responsible ones will seek out continuing education opportunities that will bring them up-to-speed on such issues as intellectual freedom, CIPA requirements, filtering, etc.

    The Missouri State Library provides CE opportunities and consultants, but they are stretched horribly thin–one under-staffed State Library to work with the entire state! Missouri doesn’t have state-supported library systems, which provide a network of continuing education and free-to-the library consulting services, among other programs. This could have happened many places, but I’d like to think it would be less likely where libraries and continuing education of staff are supported.

    Filtering may be necessary thanks to CIPA, but those filters can be turned off. Filtering really doesn’t work. How does one find information on breast cancer or a recipe for chicken breasts and pasta….or shittake mushrooms? Heh–reminds me of the Library of Congress, which over ten years ago re-designed its reading room to allow for greater privacy for viewing Internet sites–they didn’t want some visitors upset by what other visitors might be viewing.

    The Salem, MO librarian under no circumstances should have reported to the police what the patrons were viewing. Child porn or other illegalities would be reportable, but regular porn, though they might not want it viewed in their library, isn’t illegal. Maybe inappropriate for a one-room library, but not illegal. And certainly religious websites are not reportable!!! Library records are supposed to be confidential–there is a Library User’s Bill of Rights out there. This just makes my blood boil–I am glad that the ACLU is involved–the American Library Association will also want to know about this. The ACLU and ALA were partners in repealing certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.

  20. I wish we could override our filter – unfortunately, the city, not the library, is the one in charge of the filter. (Happily, Paganism and related issues aren’t blocked.) When we have patrons complain (as they angrily do when they discover that Craigslist is blocked), I hand them the direct number for the City Manager.

  21. I’m not arguing against trial, just pointing out that you can lose trials, esp. if the jury comes from the same mindset as this librarian. The suit is only against the library and librarian, not the filtering company. Not sure why they weren’t joined. But large settlements can have as much deterrent as a trial. And this is a case that, IMHO, the library should settle.

    BTW, speaking of banned books, remember the school that handed out bibles and said, “Sure, no problem, they’d hand out books from other religions, as well”? No one will be surprised to learn that things didn’t quite work out that way.

  22. But even a settlement will open the floor for others to fight this ban. Eventually we will see a lift for all. I was personally appalled at the fact she stated the need to “report these people to the authorities”.

  23. Well, good luck to the ACLU. They can only comprehend nine instead of ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, but you go with what you’ve got.

    I just checked my blog in Netsweeper and it came out “Green” (OK) in the category “Occult [5],” so apparently I may continue corrupting library patrons.

  24. “In the criminal justice system…Wicca-related crimes are considered especially heinous. The brave librarians who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad called the Spanish Inquisition Unit. These are their stories.”


  25. Yes, you can lose at trial, which is what appeals courts are for, but that means more money.

    The Buncombe County (love the name) is disappointing but not surprising. At least the school is vetting their policy for religious material in general.

  26. At least the school is vetting their policy for religious material in general.

    No, they aren’t. They’ve found a handy way to put off people of other faiths who want the same privileges as those given to Christians. This ‘vetting’ will go on indefinitely, unless a suit is filed (at which time, religious tracts will miraculously no longer be allowed). Then they will complain about how “oppressed” they are because non-Christians want equal access.

    I’m with the blogger linked to above – I’m beyond tired of this song and dance on the part of public school districts.

  27. I bet the Conservative nutjobs who created the filtering software will be adding the ACLU to their list of blocked sites pretty soon. LOL.

  28. Good point about the degree, but I thought we were all supposed to know something about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights before graduating from high school. (I’m assuming here that librarians have at least done that.) I don’t think a lack of a degree is an excuse for appointing yourself Big Brother as Wofford clearly has. The situation may well be different in other small-town locations. But if this kind of self-appointed censorship only happens in one library, it happens in one too many.

  29. As it is a violation of one’s civil rights, I would sue any institution who blocked content that could better educate a person or to aid someone’s studies. The occult is accepted by many and practiced by more. Yet, it is also widely studied in the archelogical and antropology worlds. There is great knowledge and violation Civil Rights because of another’s beliefs is wrong and should not be pushed onto others.

  30. Since Christians are the only ones who really want this kind of distribution of their materials, the test will come the next time someone wants to pass out more Gospels. I predict the school will say “Hit the road,” not out of any sudden Consitutional enlightenment but because, like many bureaucrats, they don’t want to repeat an unpleasant experience.

  31. For me this has been a huge problem. My site has not been ablt to be accessed at WiFi spots including Panera Bread, McDonalds at times, etc. etc. This is pretty prevalent. So I guess I am goign to put a database together of denial of access.

  32. The Wild Hunt has not been filtered because they just read the title and they assumed it is about killing animals which is okay according to their twisted logic.

  33. I’m gonna venture a guess that they did that in the very first beta version of their filter software….

  34. I’m just one county over from Salem, MO and I have family there. It’s the same place that Diana’s Grove was located and the Pagan Spirit Gathering festival was held near there at Camp Zoe for a while. That doesn’t mean locals are open minded. A woman I met tried to start a small shop at a room in a flea market in Salem and had a woman scream at here and try to drive demons out.

  35. I tried the Covenant of the Goddess website, and it got a pass, but was classed as “Occult” rather than “Religious” by NetSweeper.

  36. Ever notice that in many libraries (including the NYPL) many books on the occult and pagan and native american religions are kept offsite, and are on request? We have to bring this barrier to information down. Thank goodness for barnes and nobles, atleast people can check out what they want there.

  37. But keep in mind that these are often among the most stolen books in the library, whether people who want them for their own collection or censors who don’t want anyone to have access.
    In some of the local libraries in my area, they keep many of these books in reference, and thus not available for circulation.
    Keeping them off-site is actually not such a bad idea for some libraries, since it would save them the cost of having to replace the volumes. The information IS available, you just have to ask for it.

    Also, Barnes and Noble isn’t a library.

  38. these are often among the most stolen books in the library

    The last Pagan book we purchased was checked out and never returned four months after shelving. Grr. We’re replacing it, but thank goodness it was an inexpensive book (if it had been pricey, it would not have been replaced.) That said, there are Pagan books in our catalog which get regular circulation, so I don’t think it’s a regular occurrence.

    The nicer Pagan books are designated as Reference, so they can’t be checked out. Keeps the swiping to a minumum but allows access without requests.

  39. Fair point. My first introduction to heathenry came when I was in high-school, in the tucked-away alcove of occult books at the Milwaukee Public Library. If I hadn’t been able to discreetly browse and read books right off the shelf back then, I might not have been here today.

  40. Yes, I noticed the school was only worried about “reviewing for appropriate content” and reviewing their policy regarding making religious materials of any kind available AFTER the bibles had been handed out. If I were living in this area, I would wait a year and see if Gideon or anyone else wants to make bibles available once more and what the school board’s reaction to that is AFTER they turned down the pagan books.

  41. The thing here is that they didn’t just filter for occult or pagan (using the same tired excuse that this filters “bad” sites and they are so sorry that they filter “good” pagan sites as well, but hey, that’s software), this time they apparently did not filter the words “occult” and “pagan” if they showed on Christian sites – obviously selective filtering so their lame excuse doesn’t work this time.