Sarah Bradburn had an important paper due for school--a research piece on teen use of tobacco. But when she stopped by her local library--the North Central Regional Library in Republic, Wash.-- and Googled "teen tobacco use," no results appeared. The reason, she later found out, was that terms like "tobacco" and thousands of other words were barred from being searched for, all in an effort to "protect children."
Bradburn, at the time, was 55 years old.
Skip to today and a lawsuit against the library, led by the ACLU, is in court for oral arguments, with a whole host of First Amendment issues at stake.
Bradburn, who spoke to Seattle Weekly by phone today, says that when she couldn't do the research she needed at her local library, she began taking weekend trips to Spokane where she would stay overnight just so she could use the library's unfiltered results to do her work.
"I'm not computer savvy, so I had no idea why the results weren't coming up," she says. "I use the library. I believe in the library. I love my library. I go there several times a week. If the library had been able to remove the filter, I wouldn't have had to go to Spokane."
Bradburn is listed along with two other library users and the group Second Amendment Foundation as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.
The suit argues that the library keeps broad filters in place that unduly limit the kinds of searches patrons can do, and furthermore that the library won't disable these limitations even when an adult user asks them to (like Bradburn, now 61).
In a statement released by the ACLU of Washington, the organization's legal director Sarah Dunne says:
"Public libraries are a valuable resource for all people in their community. Unlike with books and other printed materials, finances do not limit libraries from providing the vast array of useful information available on the Internet. Libraries should not limit the opportunity of adults to view research articles and other lawful materials."
The basis of the NCRL limiting the kinds of computer searches patrons can perform stems from the 2000 Child Internet Protection Act. That law requires that public K-12 schools and libraries maintain such safegaurds to keep kids from accessing "inappropriate content." But in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such institutions should disable the safegaurds for adults who ask.
Bradburn says that all she wants is to be able to use her local library again.
"I believe that limiting children's use of certain sites is necessary," she says. "But for me not to be able to search for something I need for research I think is overreaching."