Sunday, July 3, 2011

Is the ALA Harmful to Minors?

The American Library Association [ALA] works hard to eliminate "harmful to minors" laws and legislation.  Why?  What does that have to do with libraries?

The ALA Claims to Promote Libraries

According to the ALA Constitution, "The object of the American Library Association shall be to promote library service and librarianship."

According to the ALA Mission, the ALA is to "provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all."

Where does eliminating "harmful to minors" laws fit into that?  

The ALA's Top Mission Now is Defeating Harmful to Minors Laws

The ALA uses the organization it created called the Freedom to Read Foundation [FTRF] to oppose "harmful to minors" laws.  The FTRF just made opposing "harmful to minors" law its top priority.  See for yourself:

2010–2011 ALA CD#22.1

(2011 ALA Annual Conference)
Freedom to Read Foundation
2011 Annual Conference — New Orleans, Louisiana

As President of the Freedom to Read Foundation, it is my privilege to report on the Foundation’s activities since the 2011 Midwinter Meeting:


At the Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, the FTRF Board of Trustees began to set new priorities for the Freedom to Read Foundation, with the goal of firmly establishing FTRF as the premier legal advocate for intellectual freedom in libraries.  The trustees took a number of concrete steps toward that goal here in New Orleans, identifying key action areas and approving elements of a strategic plan that will secure FTRF’s financial future, expand its membership, and make it possible for FTRF to take the lead in litigation that protects the right to access information.  We look forward to concluding the strategic planning process at the 2012 Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.


The Freedom to Read Foundation’s core mission remains the vindication of the public’s right to hear what is spoken and to read what is written, no matter how the message is communicated to the public.  Laws that aim to restrict publication of constitutionally protected materials—such as state laws that criminalize the distribution of legal materials deemed “harmful to minors” over the Internet—fall squarely within that mission.  FTRF is currently participating as a plaintiff in two different lawsuits that are intended to ensure our freedom to read information published via the Internet without restriction or government interference.

The first lawsuit, Florence v. Shurtleff, is a long-standing challenge to Utah’s “harmful to minors” statute that would impair access to lawful Internet content and allow the state’s attorney general to create an Adult Content Registry that could sweep in any site the attorney general deems unacceptable.  For several months, counsel for the Freedom to Read Foundation sought to reach an agreement with the Utah attorney general that would restrict application of the “harmful to minors” law to those individuals who have one-on-one contact with a viewer and who subsequently disseminate “harmful to minors” materials to that viewer when the individual knows or believes the viewer is a minor.  These negotiations failed, and FTRF and its co-plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment on June 8, 2011.

The second lawsuit, ABFFE, et al. v. Burns, challenges Alaska’s newly adopted “harmful to minors” statute that criminalizes the distribution of certain material to minors under the age of 16.  Under the new law, a crime is committed if the material distributed fits within the law’s definition of “harmful to minors” and is distributed to a person under 16 years of age or to a person the distributor believes is under 16 years of age.

As I reported earlier, the federal district court hearing the lawsuit issued a preliminary injunction in October 2010, forbidding enforcement of the Alaska statute during the pendency of the lawsuit.  Subsequently, FTRF and its co-plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment that sought a final declaration that the law violated the First Amendment.  The state attorney general responded by filing both a cross-motion for summary judgment and a motion asking that the lawsuit be certified to the Alaska Supreme Court for an interpretation of the statute.  On June 8, 2011, the Alaska Supreme Court declined the request for certification.  The case will now return to the district court for a decision on the motions for summary judgment filed by both parties.

The Foundation continues to monitor with interest Sarah Bradburn et al v. North Central Library District, a suit filed by the ACLU of Washington against the North Central Library District on behalf of three library patrons and the Second Amendment Foundation.  The suit alleges that the library violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights by refusing to disable Internet filters at the request of adult patrons, consistent with standards established in the opinion rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Children’s Internet Protection Act case.  The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the North Central Library System policy and actions did not violate the state constitution.  We are currently awaiting a decision from the district court judge, who will decide whether the library’s policy and actions violates the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, like many other First Amendment organizations, we are anxiously waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (formerly Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association).  FTRF joined an amicus brief in support of EMA arguing that there are no exceptions to First Amendment protection for depictions or descriptions of violence.  The brief also took the position that California’s statute is content-based, subjective, and relies on an extremely broad and unconstitutionally vague definition of violence.  The implications for library material content and access to currently constitutionally protected information, should the Supreme Court decide in California’s favor, are significant.  The last scheduled day for decisions from the Supreme Court this term is June 27, 2011; we will make a full report on the decision at the Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.

Respectfully submitted,
Kent Oliver

President, Freedom to Read Foundation

Look at all that time and effort and ALA member dues going into defeating "harmful to minors" laws.  Does the FTRF work as hard on any other issues?  How about on library issues, as opposed to "harmful to minors" laws?

Evident Display by the FTRF of Disdain for Local Interests 

And that one matter he mentioned about the Bradburn case?  That was a loser for the likes of the FTRF but a winner for communities.  See, "Library Porn Removal Roadmap; NCRL Director Dean Marney Details How to Legally Remove Legal Porn from Public Library Computers and Advises that the ALA Relies on Outdated Dogma."

Notice how the ALA interests were defeated in the state, so it is taking the case to the feds.  "The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the North Central Library System policy and actions did not violate the state constitution.  We are currently awaiting a decision from the district court judge, who will decide whether the library’s policy and actions violates the U.S. Constitution."  The disdain for local control over public libraries is evident.

Alaska State Harmful to Minors Law Overturned and Librarians Gloat

To be clear, protecting civil liberties vis-à-vis "harmful to minors" legislation is very important.  There are a number of organizations doing that.  But should library associations that claim to "promote library service and librarianship" "to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all" work to defeat "harmful to minors" legislation?  Then gloat about it?

The FTRF and the Alaska Library Association [AkLA] were part of a lawsuit seeking to overturn a "harmful to minors" act in Alaska.  Indeed the law was invalidated:
Then the Alaska Library Association celebrated with this email from the AkLA "Intellectual Freedom Committee" leader dated 1 July 2011:
Greetings -

You may remember that AkLA signed on to the lawsuit challenging the law that criminalized "indecent" speech on the Internet that minors might view.  I'm happy to announce that the Federal District Court agreed with us and found the law unconstitutional.  Here's the press announcement.

An appropriate victory for free speech on July 4th weekend!

June Pinnell-Stephens
Sue Sherif
To add to the gloating, Sue Sherif, the AkLA's ALA Representative and Alaska State Head of Library Development, added the following comment:
Hooray for our court and their decision, although I have to say that when I read your subject line I had a little scare because it looked like the court had struck down an statute that was intended to protect First Amendment rights!  I hope I’m the only one who scanned it incorrectly.

Yea, team!
So we have an Alaska state government employee publicly gloating over the removal of an Alaska state "harmful to minors" law.  And what does that have to do with "promot[ing] library service and librarianship" "to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all"?

Communities Must Weigh ALA Efforts to Oppose Harmful to Minors Laws

When people evaluate whether to be guided by the diktat of the ALA in their own public libraries, there is now one more thing to consider, setting aside the evident disdain for local control over libraries—the ALA's FTRF has made defeating "harmful to minors" laws its top priority.

I can see the ACLU doing that, and it does, but not a library association stepping outside the library world it defines for itself to take on yet another non-library issue, particularly one that may literally be harmful to minors.

Is the ALA harmful to minors?  Since it exceeds its mission, that is a legitimate concern.


  1. I don't see how the ALA is harmful to minors, or how they are straying from their mission when attempting to defeat laws that restrict the distribution of information to library customers.

    As you yourself quoted, the ALA strives to "enhance learning and ensure access to information for all." This includes minors. Fighting nanny laws in individual states clearly falls under that portion of their mission.

  2. Interesting opinion. Thank you for commenting.


Comments of a personal nature, trolling, and linkspam may be removed.