Filtering Irony in Missouri

ALA Online has a rather ironic story about a far-right political group that is suing public libraries in Missouri after finding that its website was blocked by their filters (Bess) as hate speech. The group is a racist grass-roots org called The Council of Conservative Citizens, among whose stated principles is that the United States is a nation of people of European descent and should fight to stay that way. They have a press release online about the lawsuit.

Their press release makes the point that since their website does not have child pornography, obscenity, nor can it be considered (legally) “harmful to minors,” its content is protected by the first amendment. CIPA in its original form did require filtering of hate speech (and as ugly as this group’s statements and ideas are, I’m not sure that everyone would agree that it contains hate speech), but this provision was actually struck down by the Supreme Court in the ALA lawsuit. Hate speech, at present, is considered by the law to be protected under the first amendment. So, this group’s lawsuit is probably a winner (and a publicity-generator for them).

But if the law is on their side, it doesn’t quite mean that the irony is too. The historical fact is that the use of filters in libraries has been a conservative cause from the beginning, and the filtering companies themselves have close ties to conservative Christian groups. The inclusion of “hate speech” and other non sex-related categories in internet filters is not based on the first amendment but on the demands of mostly conservative parents. That the Council of Conservative Citizens’ website was blocked by Bess and that they now have a promising lawsuit against several libraries can be interpreted in any of several ways:

  • That overblocking by filters like Bess is real and affects not only liberal causes such as breast cancer awareness and sex education but also conservative causes like promoting racism (sorry, couldn’t resist that);
  • That the Council of Conservative Citizens can be considered so beyond the pale that a conservative-dominated internet filtering industry is comfortable blocking their site in the “hate speech” category;
  • That society is confused about hate speech and offensive speech generally, and isn’t sure what’s protected and what’s not, or what should be, or why.

If this suit wins, it seems to me that one part of the outcome could be to reinforce the idea that overblocking by filters that results in a loss of access to protected speech is something that can be legally remedied (even though the whole category in which their site was blocked is protected by the first amendment, because it’s still a form of overblocking). It could also build the impression that it is not only liberals who are opposed to or concerned about the affect of internet filters on access to information, but conservatives, too, giving opposition to filtering a more mainstream image.

Delicious stuff…

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