The Mind of a Censor

by Jonathan Wallace

On the Web there lives a genial fellow named David Burt. An Oregon librarian, Burt operates the Filtering Facts Web page. Burt's mission is to persuade the world that censorware belongs in public libraries.

He describes Filtering Facts as a nonprofit corporation formed under Oregon law which has as its goals to "educate the public and media about Internet software filters; encourage libraries to adopt filters; persuade the American Library Association to rescind its Resolution on the use of filtering software in libraries, and adopt a more tolerant view of filtering."

Burt says his sole concern is pornography on the Internet. His organization's FAQ reveals that he works closely with two fundamentalist organizations, Family Friendly Libraries and Donna Rice Hughes' group, Enough is Enough. In fact, a good deal of Burt's FAQ is cut and pasted from an Enough is Enough brochure, including the following:

"[P]ornography is addictive and progressive in nature for many who consume it. It affects their thinking and behavior and often leads them to commit sexual crimes against innocent victims, usually children and women."

Burt's Web page claims that he does not support state-mandated filtering in libraries, and he also claims to think that there are alternatives to filtering which will work to keep porn out of libraries. But when you debate Burt, he never seems to agree that there is an alternative--he just believes that librarians ought to want to install censorware.

Members of Declan McCullagh's Fight-Censorship list, which Burt frequents, are constantly calling Burt's attention to the flaws of particular censorware products, particularly the socially valuable, First Amendment-protected sites which they block. Burt's usual response is to try to justify the blocking, though he will sometimes admit that a site has been blocked in error. However, he does not think the blocking of sites such as the EFF archive, the National Organization for Women, the AIDS Quilt site, the MIT Student Association for Free Expression and my own Ethical Spectacle constitute a fatal flaw preventing the use of censorware in libraries. Instead, Burt likes to point out that the products endorsed on his site, such as Cyberpatrol and Bess, allow the user to configure the products so as to allow access to blocked sites. In the event of an erroneously blocked site, he says, just ask the librarian to help you get access to it.

In September, several members of the Fight-Censorship list collaborated in the preparation of an article which went out over my byline, about a product that Burt then endorsed, X-Stop from Log-On Data Corporation. The piece revealed that X-Stop, which was marketed to libraries as blocking only legally obscene material in its so-called "Felony Load" version, actually blocked the Quaker website, the National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law, the Heritage Foundation, and portions of The Ethical Spectacle. Burt and one of his backers, Family Friendly Libraries, immediately issued statements withdrawing their endorsement of the product.

I sent mail congratulating Burt on his willingness to back away from a dishonestly marketed product. Burt and I had exchanged private email on and off for months, and though our disagreements were very deep, we had always maintained a cordial tone; Burt had even complimented me for not flaming him, and had described me on Fight-Censorship as being one of the people there with something interesting to say. In a debate that blew up on the list after the X-Stop article, I began to press Burt about the blocking of The Ethical Spectacle by six of the leading censorware products. Since my site contained nothing prurient, and was dedicated to the discussion of ideas on a fairly dry and intellectual level, didn't he see a systemic problem in the fact it was blocked by so many products?

Perhaps Burt regretted backing off of his endorsement of X-Stop; maybe he now thought that if he kept abandoning software which blocked my site and others, he would have nothing left to endorse. At any rate, there promptly appeared the following missive to the list (really more of a missile than a missive):

"[T]he filtering vendors I talk to think that you are playing games with them, putting lurid articles like this full of foul language and reference to sex and drugs, then claiming that 'your site is blocked when it is about the free discussion of ideas'."

The "lurid article" Burt was referring to was a short story of mine in the October issue of the Spectacle, entitled The Fall-Out. Part of a series of stories and related fragments entitled Kazoo Concerto, this story describes how a salesman, Ken Copeland, decides to make the world manifest the perfect wife for him. He calls up every stock-brokerage in New York City, describing to the receptionist a woman stockbroker he claims to have met but whose name he cannot remember. On the eleventh phone call, a receptionist says, "Oh, you must mean Donna Ray." After eliciting information about her from the receptionist, Ken meets Donna, charms her, dates her and is prepared to propose when Donna announces that she has decided to leave the brokerage and go to social work school. She attributes her decision to a sister who is often sick, but doesn't reveal the nature of the illness to Ken. The real woman has now modified herself so that she no longer fits Ken's fantasy. Ken has an image of life with Donna that persuades him not to propose to her:

"He had a vision in which she inhabited his apartment, his wonderful bachelor pad where so many women had passed, and her combs and bras and bobby pins were in every corner. Her cold cream and contact lens solution. Her little socks under the pillow. Every night when he came home she was already there. With thick books on 'Case Management' and 'The Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.'.... And she would work with people who drooled and slobbered, who were fat, smelly and drugged, or who were smelly and elderly and festooned with dripping IV's and wires. And then every once in a while a phone call would come, and they would rush out at three in the morning to an emergency room to meet the mongoloid or drug-addicted or MS-stricken or AIDS-suffering or suicidal sister."

I was so startled by Burt's accusation that the story was full of references to sex and drugs that I went back and re-read it closely. There are no descriptions of sex acts or people's bodies in the story; this is as explicit as it gets:

"Their lovemaking the weekend before had been a shock to him; he had been so careful to stay away from women who might fall in love with him that he had long forgotten how exciting it was to make love to someone who was infatuated with you. He understood that love was a feedback system, because it was easy and tempting to be infatuated by someone else's infatuation. It was simple vanity, the vanity of the master salesperson, to be almost in love with someone because they loved you."

Burt's claim that The Fall-Out referred to drug use was even more baffling. The only mentions of drugs in the story are in the first paragraph I quoted above. In Ken's vision of married life with Donna, he sees her working with people who are "fat, smelly and drugged". He imagines rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night on account of the "mongoloid or drug-addicted or MS-stricken or AIDS-suffering or suicidal sister."

Burt is correct at least that the story contains a few four letter words, none used in a sexual context. In a series of conversations with his boss and friend, Lyle Doggett, who disapproves of his wooing of Donna, Ken and Lyle exchange a few "Fuck you's" and at one point Ken tells Lyle to "eat a bag of shit and bark at the moon." I was reproducing the familiar dialog of people I work with every day. In context, a few four letter words scattered through the text, don't seem to me to add up to a prurient, evil or dangerous work, spreading its tentacles across the Net to corrupt the minds of children.

Ironically, as a result of Burt's attack a lot of Fight-Censorship list members read The Fall-Out; most had friendly things to say about it, but were unanimous that the story failed to appeal to any prurient interest, favored marriage and opposed libertinage, and was actually far blander in its content than the works of many noted authors of the last fifty years whose works are presumably collected in David Burt's library. People like Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Norman Mailer, for example.

Why is all of this significant? People flame each other on the Net every day, and its not news. Burt took a cheap shot at me, but why is it worth writing about?

Burt's reaction to The Fall-Out is worth discussing because he behaved like a classic censor, and a close look at his behavior gives insight into the mind of a censor. He never read the work he was judging; he didn't even know it was a work of fiction, since he called it an article. He didn't know, or didn't care, that the only references to drugs were to medication and to Ken's vision that Donna had an addicted sister. At best, Burt searched the text of The Fall-Out looking for some keywords, and found them. He failed to do what any court in the world would do in a constitutional determination--he never looked at the work in context. But he felt entitled, based on the few moments he spent with the story, to classify it as "lurid" and to accuse the author of playing games. And then he backed up the latter accusation by referring to some unspecified filtering vendors, whom he never named.

In fact, each of these vendors builds its blacklist of blocked sites by following the same approach David Burt followed with The Fall-Out. Underpaid human beings, some of them part-timers and none of them librarians, looks at a site for a few minutes, scan for occurrences of words like "fuck", "sex" or "gay", and make a hasty determination to add the site to a blocked list. But that's OK with Burt--if your site doesn't belong on the list, just contact the company. Never mind that The Ethical Spectacle site consists of hundreds of URL's, each of which I would have to check with the product installed just to learn that a particular page of mine was blocked. Never mind that not every censorware vendor will unblock a page. Burt also suggests you can get the librarian to bypass the software. But how many people will approach the librarian and say, "Please disable the blocking software, so I can look at 'Humans and Their Pornography'" (the issue of The Ethical Spectacle blocked by I-Gear for its extremely nonprurient discussion of the comparative thought of Nadine Strossen, Wendy McElroy and Catharine MacKinnon)?

Another thing I learned from my run-in with David Burt. When someone launches The Big Lie at your work, its easy to get defensive. Within minutes I was playing on a field laid out by Burt--counting occurrences of "fuck", debating whether the story promoted good morals, was bland or sexy, etc.

It shouldn't matter. Literature, as Proust said, is a mirror held up to life. It is not the quality of the life that makes great art, it is the quality of the mirror. Madame Bovary was a great mirror held up to a sad, dishonest life. The prosecutor who chased Flaubert, and that work, for indecency confused the subject of the work with the author's moral stand. He, and David Burt, stand with the silly scientists in 1950's monster movies who intone, "There are some things man was not meant to know." Will we really protect our children if we insulate them equally from art and life? Granted, some parents may answer this question with a loud "Yes". Since that parent can teach values and has the authority to decide what his child sees, must we really block art and life from the library? And, most interesting of all, since David Burt doesn't want The Fall-Out visible on the library computer, why would he make an exception for it printed on paper and on the shelves of his library? Or for Henry Miller? Burt won't say he wants books off the shelves--but if not, he's got a hell of a double standard. (Since the original publication of this essay, Burt has said that he would only block The Fall-Out from school, not library, computers. This doesn't change anything; for one thing, Burt hasn't said how he would set the software to distinguish whether it is installed in a school or a library.)

During october, in Loudoun County, Virginia, the library board of trustees voted the U.S.'s most restrictive Internet policy, ordering mandatory blocking even for adult users of the library's terminals. The director of libraries for the county offered a compromise solution, in which the entire Internet would be blocked except for sites reviewed and approved by a librarian. Dixie Sanner, of Burt's partner organization Enough is Enough, responded that putting library staff in charge of selecting Internet content is "like putting the wolf in charge of the henhouse."

David Burt should be known by his deeds and by the company he keeps. He claims to be concerned only by porn, but attacks The Fall-Out. He says he only wants to filter the Net, but travels with the same people who turn up to protest when a library buys a copy of Heather Has Two Mommies.

David Burt is entitled to his opinions. But they don't deserve to be converted to practice in the First Amendment enriched air of a public library.

If you read The Fall-Out let me know what you think; you might also want to copy your comments to David Burt, who can be reached at