January 28, 1998 11:35 AM PST

ACLU threat reverses filter policy

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Facing a lawsuit threat from the American Civil Liberties Union, a large Southern California county has reversed its policy of filtering Net access at public libraries.

The Board of Supervisors for Kern County voted last night to buy more computers for its libraries to offer unfiltered Net access for adults and minors at each of its 25 branches. For more than a year, the community has had filters on most of its 50 library computers as part of the policy it adopted in 1996 to screen out sexually oriented and obscene sites for Net users under the age of 18.

As of today, libraries with just one computer will not screen any Net sites. Once the new PCs are implemented, adults and minors alike will be able to choose if they would like to surf with the filters activated.

"They're working on it as we speak; it's kind of an immediate order. The board decided that it would be less expensive to implement the new computers than to fight a lawsuit," Dave Strong, a field representative for supervisor Pete Parra, said today. The county will spend an estimated $40,000 to comply with its new plan.

As reported last week, the ACLU sent a letter to Kern County demanding that the filters be lifted within ten days. If the county didn't comply, the ACLU said it would file a lawsuit on grounds that the county was violating adults' free speech rights.

If the ACLU had sued, the landmark case could have decided the constitutionality of Net filtering at public libraries. The ACLU and groups such as the American Library Association say filtering programs often censor sites with redeeming social value.

The civil liberties group has been negotiating with Kern County since October. The closely watched case highlights an issue cities are facing around the nation. Some local officials support unrestricted Net access, while others use blocking technologies on all computers. A handful are hammering out policies to just limit children's ability to view pornographic or obscene material.

The ACLU is waiting for the outcome of another lawsuit, this one in Loudoun County, Virginia, where a local civil rights group has sued the county for barring access to certain Web sites for all patrons regardless of their age. Also, the ACLU is monitoring developments in Austin, Texas, where Cyber Patrol filtering software is installed on Net access terminals in libraries.

"Kern County backed off. It's great. They decided to honor the First Amendment rights of their patrons," ACLU national staff attorney Ann Beeson said today. "We would not have backed down if the minors' rights issue had not been resolved. Hopefully, other libraries will follow their example."

The decision was not celebrated by all, however. Some parents may want more assurance that their children aren't peeking at smut when accessing the Net at the library, according to Kern County officials.

"It's not a very popular decision within the county because this county is a very family oriented county where protection of children is first and foremost," Strong said. "However, I guess there were some constitutional issues that were being raised by the ACLU. Still, it wasn't a happy compromise."

Kern County has argued that its filtering policy complies with a California state law that prohibits making "sexually explicit" material available to those under age 18. The county Board of Supervisors voted last summer to install N2H2's Bess blocking system in all public library computers.

 

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