Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wicca, Salem, and Glenda the Not Witch

The ACLU is not without its flaws, but I’m glad they’re around. Case in point: a lawsuit filed by that organization and its Eastern Missouri office against the Salem (MO) Public Library. [Various sources: The Riverfront Times, The Raw Story, Deseret News, the ACLU’s own site.]

It seems that a woman named Anaka Hunter, a Salem resident, was looking for more information about the Native American part of her heritage, specifically with respect to spirituality. So she went to the library, but found all the appropriate websites blocked by filtering software. She asked why, as one might reasonably do under the circumstances.

Library director Glenda Wofford then unblocked a page or two, but kept most blocked because sites devoted to Native American spirituality, Wicca, astrology and paganism are classified (by her) as related to the “occult” and to “criminal skills.” Yes, really. To say this is utterly stupid is merely to state the facts. And yes, we do have a case about witches (of a sort) in a town called Salem, featuring someone named Glenda. [Yes, I know the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” was Glinda, not Glenda: go with me, here.] That doesn’t make Ms. Wofford’s idiocy any more palatable, but it does make the story more fun.

But, as Aimee Levitt writes:
When Hunter protested that she felt it was unfair to classify Native American spirituality along as “occult” or “criminal skills,” Wofford told her that she had an “obligation” to call the “proper authorities” to report anyone who requested access to blocked sites if she thought they were going to misuse the information. Hunter interpreted this to mean Wofford was going to call the police and stopped trying to do her research at the Salem Public Library.
Yikes. An appeal to the library board was unsuccessful at best: “‘They listened to her, but they made no changes,’ reports Tony Rothert, one of the ACLU lawyers who filed the lawsuit on Hunter's behalf.” The lawsuit per se quotes a board member as saying “If that’s all, we have business to discuss.”

There are a host of problems here. First is the filtering software itself, or rather the application of it. There are laws at both the national and state levels requiring that certain kinds of websites be inaccessible from computers in libraries: this inevitably leads to the need to over-ride the software so that patrons doing research on, say, child pornography can have access to information about legal cases and arrest records without being blocked. It is understandable that there are judgment calls here. This, however, doesn’t come close to being one.

There is nothing about any of the topics listed above that remotely qualifies as “criminal skills.” “Occult” may or may not be an appropriate designation, but that’s really an irrelevant consideration, since the occult, whether the Bible-thumpers believe it or not, is a legitimate subject of inquiry. Or are we to ignore the works of Christopher Marlowe, Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, W.B. Yeats, Heinrich von Kleist, Arthur Conan Doyle, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King… and a few hundred others, merely from the realm of literature?

Significantly, someone had to program that software to block, for example, the Wikipedia entry on Wicca, the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, and Astrology.com but not, significantly, a page entitled “Astrology and Horoscopes: The Bible and Christian View.” In Mr. Rothert’s words,
It violates the establishment clause [in the First Amendment]. You can learn what the Catholic Church thinks of paganism, but if you want the pagan view of paganism, it's blocked. It gives preferential treatment to some religions. Any example of a minority religion discussed in a positive way has been blocked.
In my words, to say that there’s a double standard here, a false distinction that reflects all too clearly the arrogance, intransigence and myopia of the library board, is merely to state fact.

But Wofford compounds the apparent bigotry by claiming that it wasn’t she, but the software (apparently endowed with supernatural powers… which patrons at the Salem library couldn’t look up) which prevented Ms. Hunter from accessing the sites of her choice. It was programmed, presumably at her direction. Moreover, she could bypass the software if she chose, as evidenced by the fact that… wait for it… she did, although nowhere near to the extent needed. In other words, Ms. Wofford is not merely a bigoted idiot, she’s a lying bigoted idiot.

True, Ms. Hunter needn’t have been so secretive about the sites she wanted to visit, but then again, Rosa Parks could have just moved to the back of the bus, too. The argument that “legitimate use” ought somehow be limited to school projects and the like is laughable on its face. Ms. Wofford’s responsibility isn’t to decide whether a patron’s desire to visit a site is legitimate; it’s to decide if it’s legal, and if it won’t interfere with the smooth operation of the facility (the way a perfectly legal pornsite would be a distraction, for example).

Beyond that, it’s not her call. Whether this remarkably inept decision-making is based on pseudo-Christian tunnel vision or on a more generic form of stupidity is difficult to determine. But whether this makes the town of Salem look like a different Salem in a different century: that’s self-evident.

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