The mandatory library filtering ballot in Holland, Mich., home of the Slashdot Geek Compound, has been defeated. With heavy voter turnout of 41% (compared to 12% in 1996), the proposal was rejected by a pretty wide margin: 55% to 45%. The Holland library will remain unfiltered - or, more accurately, will now have the right to make up its own mind about whether blocking software is appropriate. See the local press coverage (or national or international), or read on for more.
I think it was my friend Lizard on the fight-censorship mailing list who said: "You can't compromise with book-burners. When someone asks you to burn 1,000 books, you cannot agree to burn only 500." He's exactly right. Any middle ground is a step backwards, and hard to recover.
It's important to keep in mind how tough the battle was. Holland was chosen to be a testbed by national groups like the American Family Association and Family Research Council, and they spent a lot of money. Why? Because the AFA and FRC stood to make a lot of money by using Holland as an example for nationwide campaigning. They have been hyping up this ballot as the first big step in a nationwide campaign.
And they figured Holland would be a slam-dunk. It's one of the most conservative communities in American. And the measure was well-timed: the ballot was on the same night as the Republican primary. (Michigan is not a closed primary, though, and many Democrats did vote.)
Some Slashdot posters have commented that I've seemed pessimistic in my reports on the campaign. They've been right. I couldn't read the city's mood very well, not being a native, and based on the coverage and talks I'd seen, I didn't think the chances were very good.
While the AFA and FRC together contributed over $40,000, the anti-filter side raised - locally - $2,000.
The AFA sponsored a "pushpoll," in which a Florida firm made phone calls to hundreds of likely voters, asking them "questions" designed to leave the impression that the library is inviting to pedophiles. Local anti-filter volunteers went door-to-door.
The pro-filter organizations ran radio, newspaper, and cable TV advertisements, they sent out at least three direct mailings, and they spent thousands on slick presentations to local groups.
And when it came down to the vote, they lost.
This isn't the end, though. It's just the beginning. The heads of the various pro-filtering groups are all hinting that the battle is not over. Presumably that means it will become another ballot issue, perhaps later this year, perhaps next year. And it will certainly be happening elsewhere in America at the same time. (Write me when it gets to your community.)
In some cases, the unaccountable censorship of secretive blocking software will be turned down at the voting booth. I'm guessing that, in the next five years, we'll see a definitive statement on the relevance of the First Amendment, one way or the other, in the courts.
But for now ... well, I'll close by congratulating everyone in Holland who worked to defeat this measure, and by quoting from one of the direct mailings funded by the AFA. You'll have to imagine this text as it appears, in 30-point headlines, with yellow highlights:
"America's watching, Holland. The debate over Internet filters on library computers is a national issue. Now, the focus is on Holland, Michigan.
"Tuesday, February 22nd, Holland citizens will decide the first ballot vote on filtering in the nation. How we vote will affect this issue nationwide.
"On February 22, send a clear message to America. Tell America we must protect our children from Internet pornography and drugs."