January 21, 1998 1:15 PM PST

ACLU threatens suit on Net filters

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The American Civil Liberties Union has given a Southern California library system ten days to remove Net filtering software from its computers or risk being slammed with a lawsuit.

If the ACLU were to sue, the landmark case could decide the constitutionality of Net filtering at public libraries, which has sparked a national debate. As reported in October, the ACLU has been trying to get the large agricultural community of Kern County to drop its Net access policy of filtering sexually oriented and obscene sites for most of its patrons--children and adults alike--who use one of its 50 computer terminals.

Kern County officials couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

The ACLU and groups such as the American Library Association say the practice is unconstitutional, as filtering programs often censor sites with redeeming social value. Today the ACLU said its talks with Kern County have not produced adequate results.

"This is one of the biggest counties in the country. Almost all of the branches have only one Net access terminal, and the default is that the filter is running," ACLU national staff attorney Ann Beeson said today. "It is a huge inhibition on adults' free speech rights. But I'm still optimistic that they will do the right thing and remove the filters."

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 on all public library computers. After being approached by the ACLU, the county and the software maker said they would work together to tailor the program so it didn't filter sites of value.

But the ACLU contends that most filtering programs, no matter how they are tweaked, impede adults' access to constitutionally protected material.

The ACLU also is closely watching developments in Austin, Texas, where Cyber Patrol filtering software is installed on Net-access terminals in libraries, as well as the outcome of another lawsuit about the same issue.

Last month, the Washington-based People for the American Way sued the Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia over its policy to prohibit children's access to pornography and obscenity and any "material deemed harmful to juveniles."

 

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