Filtering and Free Exercise: ACLU vs. Salem Public Library

Filtering and Free Exercise: ACLU vs. Salem Public Library January 9, 2012

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,, 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.

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49 responses to “Filtering and Free Exercise: ACLU vs. Salem Public Library”

  1. Great info. I am thinking about checking out my local library to see how it filters such cites. This would be a good idea for all who are concerned.

  2. “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.”

    Problem is, the defendant is the public library, not the software provider. The best likely outcome is that the library — and, by extention, all public libraries — will be legally required to hack their purchased software to comply with the First Amendment. The software provider still has made the sale and, with its roots in the society of conservative Christian parents, is still in its comfort zone.

    What would make a deeper change would be a decision that a library could not buy software that it needed to hack to this end. This is unlikely because it would (1) reach to arguably unnecessary depth into purchasing decisions of a public body, and (2) verge on judicial censorship of what the software provider can compose.

    So whatever the outcome of this action, the problem is likely to persist.

  3. I live in Hot Springs Arkansas, and although I haven’t caught my local library (Garland County Library) engaging in filtering online sources, they do hide all the Pagan / Neo-Pagan / Heathen books behind the counter.

    In order to read them you have to know the title of the book your looking for, and then post a deposit equal to the replacement value of the book before your allowed to read it in the li8brary, let along check them out.

    When I asked the staff they claimed it was because all the “pagan” books kept getting stolen. However they don’t do this with the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, or Buddhist books.

  4. This differential treatment is probably because Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist books don’t get stolen.

    In the old days there was a card catalogue by author, title and subject and you could go into the subject file and pick up titles to request. I assume this has now morphed into a computer terminal with opaque instruction on a paper taped to the desk.

    If the library’s handling of Pagan/Heathen books is seriously inconvenient for you, you might try to schedule a sit-down with the head librarian and lay out your situation. Maybe you could work something out. Or you might run into the Arkansas version of Glenda Wofford; you never know unless you try.

  5. Sadly, it is common for Pagan books to be stolen. Sometimes it’s by people who don’t want the books to be available for circulation, but all too often it’s by people who think that they have the right to “liberate” the book for their own permanent use.

  6. Saying they’re required to ‘hack’ their purchased software is a little extreme. The software is built to allow ease of customization for the admins. The library can turn off filtering on entire categories or on specific websites or on specific pages of websites without any real hassle. It’s about the same as it would be for you to go organize your bookmarks.

  7. This is interesting. Regarding the comment of Peg Aloi, Wicca and much of modern Paganism is absolutely historically and practically linked to what has been traditionally labelled “the occult”. I would hate to see other Pagans try to make an arbitrary (and revisionist) distinction between themselves and “occult” groups and practitioners (OTO, Golden Dawn, Chaotes), on the basis that some Pagans appear to be more “religious” than others, therefore more acceptable to mainstream culture.

  8. Those against Freedom of Religion are trying to label witchcraft and books on witchcraft, the occult, or non-mainstream religion or philosophy as “inappropriate” while their religion’s books and materials are fine to have around the home where children might see, to give their mainstream religion further advantage over partially contrary views. It is part of their push to make government paid agencies and organizations treat witchcraft as something to hide behind a counter or needing to be filtered away, etc. and inappropriate to leave around or have available for children to read. And by that not even making children participate in their religion as many Christian parents do, but just for not hiding all one’s beliefs, books, and literature (and perhaps one’s own writings) from their children.
    There’s some junky and bad books in any genre, but that doesn’t make the whole religious book genre smut, and if it is all smut, then the KJV has to be treated the same way as occult stuff as inappropriate for children and requiring hiding under one’s mattress.
    Non-mainstream religious or philosophical books being considered inappropriate to keep around minors in someone’s own private home in custody cases are not slippery slope concerns, they’ve happened.

  9. I see it as a question of context. The term as used by filtering software is making distinctions that create a hierarchy of acceptable belief systems (including magic(k)al orders). Certainly “occult” as a term has its place within academia and among groups who embrace that label. I would never advocate for Pagans to engage in revisionism.

  10. I wouldn’t think you would 🙂 Others might, though, and I suspect have. I think the nature of the software though, as you mentioned, does make interesting distinctions.

  11. Not uncommon for YA vampire romances to be stolen, too but are they usually kept behind a counter?

  12. Occult means hidden. With all the books and websites extent now, exactly what, besides unpublished specifics within groups, is hidden about this family of faiths?

    These are religions by every sociological and anthropological definition, the libraries should be classifying them as such–as should any decent software company existing within the reality-based community.

  13. Thanks for reporting on this, Jason. One of my pet peeves to address though: I dislike the conflation of the word “cult” with “occult”, one being a small group of worshippers whose practices seem strange to others or a group devoted to the worship of a particular deity. The other is a word that describes beliefs and practices dealing with the supernatural, or mysticism. When it is used as an adjective, it means hidden. This latter term most absolutely describes many types of Pagan practices. The word cult also could accurately describe certain Pagan practices or structures, but in the common use more often refers to a small group that has beliefs or practices that are considered dangerous or sinister. I get a little annoyed when people try to say that Paganism is far removed from “occult practices” out of a fear of having their belief structure labelled as a cult. We most certainly have ties to occult practices. Let’s not let our struggle for recognition white wash who and what we really are. I know, I’m nit picking.

  14. That’s because vampire romances are usually in the 6 dollar range to replace whereas the “occult books” can often be rather expensive. My local library replaces its occult section every year out of necessity, though certain more pricey books such as dictionaries and occult encyclopedias are kept behind the desk. Fortunately, no deposit is required.

  15. They ought not to be filtering the word “cult” either. It’s a pejorative and useless word and public libraries have no business making that judgment for others. If someone wants to do research on Aum Shinrikyo or Heavens Gate or Branch Davidians or whatever, they ought to be able to do so without someone playing parent to them.

  16. That game can all be solved quite handily with RFID systems. That way you don’t have to play hide and seek with the parts of the collection that tend to sprout legs. Patrons can have proper access and the ones who tend to “forget” to check things out get a nice warning at the exit gate and a free ride to the hoosegow…..

  17. Actually, Crystal, I don’t think you are nit picking at all. The white washing of which you write has potentially very real effects on significant numbers of people who identify both as Pagan and magick users who may be shut out or marginalized by this process of defining and legitimizing Paganism. I think it’s crucial that we identify and acknowledge these trends and explore their consequences.

  18. I’m sure you’re right, but I’m such a technological luddite I regard stuff like that as equivalent to hacking when I try it.

  19. No information on occult blood tests to detect cancer, or occulted planets blocked by other heavenly bodies? Nothing about cult films appreciated by a dedicated few viewers, or learning about Jonestown, or information on anthropology, then? Ya gotta watch that censoring stuff.

  20. The reason why the pagan books get stolen (we have this problem where we are, too) is that helpful Fundamentalist Christians believe they are removing a demonic influence from the public library system – performing a civic service, if you will. The imperative to wage spiritual warfare in this manner outweighs the theft and destruction of property, and freedom of expression issues.

  21. Besides, aren’t there also some “occult” things that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition?

    Point is, occult and pagan are not synonymous, even if they do overlap, and this is obviously an attempt to catergorize things as either “religion = Christian = good” or “occult = pagan = bad.”

  22. Most often stolen books in our library? Goosebumps series paperbacks. They disappear like crazy.

  23. We always hear about libraries and schools. Countless employers use this software too. I once talked to a social worker at a local hospital who was actually taking the time to try and access a Pagan info website to help a Pagan patient. Nope — no such luck. It is very wide-spread.

  24. This has been on the radar for some time: I cited this issue in Chapter 2 on Spiritual Warfare in my book “Paganism & Christianity – A Resource for Wiccans, Witches and Pagans”.

    Fortiguard is another content-filtering platform which lists pagan sites as “occult”. The Pagan Awareness Network’s website is blocked as a matter of course by such platforms as Fortiguard and Netsweeper, and attempts to have our classification changed from “occult” to “education” (we are incorporated under Australian law as an educational organization) have been unsuccessful, and in some cases unacknowledged.

    With no 1st Amendment protections (Australia has no Bill of Rights) to provide legal grounds for filing suit, limited funds, the fact we are dealing with overseas companies, and that key laws regarding the Internet haven’t even been drafted yet in our jurisdiction, and we have virtually no recourse.

    I applaud the ACLU’s tackling of this issue, as an initial step, and to establish a precedent for further legal action. Personally I would love to see a class action on behalf of the pagan community against the manufacturers and distributors of content-filtering software.

    This is not the only cyber-issue challenging the pagan community either: I believe a few months ago Star Foster blogged about Wikipedia’s alleged policy of fast-tracking articles about pagan-related topics and by pagan scholars for deletion.

    In addition, I know that the Pagan Awareness Network experiences regular attempts at denial-of-service, virus, port-scan attacks etc, seemingly from Christian hacktivists – I am interested to discover whether other pagan community organizations experience similar regular attacks.

  25. I suspect that topics like “spiritual warfare” and all that goes along with it within some Christian churches are not blocked by filtering software as “occult.”

  26. Actually, I think the best likely outcome is that it will set a precedent in case law that any institution receiving public monies MAY NOT utilize blocking or filtering software that denies access to information on and by minority religions and that the information currently categorized as occult is protected. It would be WONDERFUL if a precedent also has reasoning that looks at the “constellation of values” question in filtering in relationship to the establishment clause and prohibits filtering that reflects the values of a particular religious system. What this will do is force the hand of the software makers to eliminate the underlying problematic logic of their product or lose the marketshare. As I was reminded, because of CIPA this includes many public libraries and school libraries AS WELL as many other organizations that receive public monies and use this type of software, like hospitals.

    Also, frankly, it is unlikely that these types of organizations are going to hack their software to make it comply. Most branch public libraries do not have systems units, and almost no school libraries do. Many of these things are externally hosted products.

    People should also know that there are libraries who have made decisions to turn down the federal money rather than comply with CIPA for EXACTLY the reasons this lawsuit has happened…and what that means is THEY NEED YOUR LOCAL TAX MONEY. This is important. In many communities, the most economically disadvantaged citizens ONLY have internet access through their local library, so they all need our support.

  27. That kind of broadly-reaching judgement would be very nice, but it will only happen if it goes to trial (and we prevail). Public-body Pagan discrimination cases are usually settled. The people with the immediate hassle get prompt relief but no wide precedent is set.

  28. Okay…so I’m looking at the technical documentation for Netsweeper, which is available online [url is ridiculous, so just search under netsweeper admin options if you like, the user guide is the first one]. What they have are preconfigured “levels” of filtering. There are a group of globally enforced categories. The most common set-up, then, is to choose one of 4 “levels” of filtering or you can set up your own local filtering groups. Having now read the whole bloody manual what I can tell you is this:
    1. There is an option for local control in terms of turning on or off categories but NOT a way to customize the AI agents that do the categorizing. This is a significant part of the problem. And, frankly, the screens are not particularly intuitive and most libraries that don’t employ systems folks are not going to be up for managing the local control option. It gets rid of a significant part of the reason why you go for a hosted service to begin with and would require maintaining extensive allow and deny lists. I just don’t see many libraries and/or schools doing this. It’s made very difficult.

    2. The levels include some other really noxious categories, too like, “alternative lifestyles.” Wonder who all gets blocked in that? Somehow Adware is allowed to be viewed before Alcohol (which one presumes might also be about overcoming addictions or how family dynamics in which there is alcohol abuse). It’s just noxious.

    3. The ability to add a site or a keyword to list of either blocked sites or allowing access seems easier on the admin side, but that is site by site or keyword by keyword.

    The whole point of this is that I have now read the whole manual of how the admin works and it is most certainly NOT as easy as managing bookmarks. Not even close.

  29. Thanks for this. I’d like to elaborate on one of your points:

    I agree, as you’ve said, that part of the problem is purely the categorization of the sites as “occult” and “criminal.” It seems very likely to me that the Salem Public Library purchased Netsweeper software out-of-the-box. If so, then it was Netsweeper that categorized the sites; the library then would have selected which categories to block.

    This problem goes far beyond Netsweeper and far beyond the Salem Public Library. These tools, built by American and Canadian companies, are also being used by foreign governments. As Helmi Noman points out (, Netsweeper once categorized Tumblr (the blog host) as pornography because around 50% of Tumblr blogs are, apparently, pornographic. This resulted in ALL of Tumblr being blocked in Qatar, the UAE, Yemen, and Kuwait. And, no doubt, the Salem Public Library.

    The question then (beyond the question of why we’re censoring the Internet at all, anyway) is why are we reliant upon, and trusting of, these privately built tools?

  30. Perhaps…but the ACLU gets involved when they are trying to set case law precedent. That’s basically their mission. They wouldn’t be taking this case for an individual client…that’s not what they do, so I have hope.

  31. Well…all I can say is looking at the Netsweeper documentation, it looks easy to turn it off for keywords and for individual sites, but not so easy to turn off some categorizes and still keep the categorization feature. That looks a lot more complicated. It looks like the local control option is not so easy. And, again, it does nothing for the AI where the embedded logic for how things get categorized is part of the problem.

  32. Yes Ursyl! Why aren’t the Jews listed as Occult? So much of their religion is unknown to outsiders. Ditto with ALL religions. And Islam is occult to outsiders. And so on and so on and so on…

  33. Is this Salem in a state other than MA?
    If it IS in MA, W. T. F.? Don’t they know that the occult that is being censored is a major contributor to the city money?

  34. I’m just happy this juicy bit of absurdidty is going to court.What do these folks think they are doing?And another question? How did the religious right version of a internet blocker get certified to use in public libraries?I understand blocking possibly vulgar sites from kids , but adults …………this is rediculous .And exactly who is this librarian going to report people to? and for what.I also question why a nationaly recognised religion , by the US govt., is listed as occult .I can hardly wait for the courts to bust their chops . Kilm

  35. Ignorant question: if I were to take my tablet into the Salem Public Library and made use of their wi-fi, would my tablet be blocked from those sites, too? Is the filtering software built into the library’s desktop computers or is it “in the air,” so to speak?

  36. It depends on how they are getting their wi-fi, but it would probably all be blocked. It’s a hosted set-up that is by IP-range and network. There are, however, some places that outsource the wireless in their building and don’t have it as part of their own network and I don’t really know how this particular library has it set up. I don’t have the manual in front of me right now, but I don’t remember any client software installation on the particular machines. Long answer for “in the air.”

  37. Yes, almost definitely. It would almost always be going thorough the same network as all their other traffic.

  38. I agree with you, generally. However, the problem is not what you say it is. The problem is not that CIPA filters should not have this or that category to block. The problem is not the evil Christians. Now it is you who are telling a private company what to do, or forcing them to act a certain way, or trying to.

    Besides, as this is the first “as applied” CIPA challenge since the 2003 case finding CIPA constitutional, you are severely overreacting.

    The real issue is this. Is a public library allowed to block categories of information other than those the CIPA filters may already constitutionally block? That’s the issue. Not whether filtering companies have unusual categories based on an unusual pedigree, so their software may not be used. Clever argument, but that’s not the issue.

    The US Supreme Court did not say libraries may block x, y, and z, and only x, y, and z. Certainly local libraries may make local decisions, so long as they do not exceed the bounds of law. So the question is, has the Salem Public Library exceeded the bounds of law by blocking categories in addition to those already proven to be constitutionally blockable?

    In my opinion, the library should not persist in blocking the particular web sites at issue in this case. However, it is certainly entitled to block additional categories of material beyond those allowed by CIPA where such blockage does not violate the law. Blocking game sites or chat sites comes to mind, and libraries block such sites all the time.

    Remember, a public library is *not* an open public forum where anything goes. See US v. ALA.

    That said, your blog post was really good reading. Thanks.

  39. I feel somewhat honored that Dan “” Kleinman has commented on my blog.

    Sir, could I quote you on the record as opposing the blocking of Pagan religious sites in public libraries?

  40. Yes, you may. I have even called ACLU Eastern Missouri and offered to assist in the matter. I’m not a high powered gun but I am on the opposite side, usually, so I could be useful in showing diversity of speakers having the same opinion, namely, not to block such sites.

  41. If we believe the facts at hand, the library in this lawsuit very clearly violated the law. The Court’s ruling on CIPA held it to be constitutional on the assumption that libraries would unblock access for adults without delay or intrusive inquiries. This particular librarian not only refused to do that, but threatened to turn a patron’s name over to law enforcement for the simple act of making the request! If that is not a chilling effect on legitimate First Amendment freedom, I don’t know what is.

    Moreover, we ought to be demanding more of our public libraries than what the Court says they can “get away with” under CIPA. They ought to be operating on a presumption of offering free access unless they can show a VERY good reason not to, and the fix ought to be as minimally burdensome as possible.

    There may well not be a court remedy in all cases, but we can certainly pressure library boards on a local level to make policy changes. They ought to reject the funding altogether that triggers the CIPA requirements, as many libraries have. The software companies are not doing anything illegal, but they are certainly fair game for comment (and ridicule). Libraries also should have to provide a complete rundown of how their filter software works, and make it available in a prominent place on their website or elsewhere. They should also have a well-noticed public hearing when that software is adopted or review the policy on an annual basis.

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