December 22, 1997 4:10 PM PST

Library sued over filtering

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A local civil rights group today sued a county in Virginia over a recently instituted library policy that requires that certain Web sites be blocked for all patrons, regardless of age.

The Washington-based People for the American Way, which helped defeat the Communications Decency Act, is representing 11 plaintiffs who say Loudoun County Public Library's requirement is unconstitutional.

"The First Amendment prohibits government from imposing content-based restrictions on speech," said Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney at People for the American Way. "There's a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech that's getting filtered out."

Since the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that speech on the Internet is entitled to a high level of constitutional protection, groups opposed to the access of porn on the Net have directed their efforts at getting schools and libraries to install software that prevents "indecent" sites from being accessed. Civil liberties groups, emboldened by the high court ruling, have been searching for a test case in which to challenge the strategy.

The policy prohibits accessing child pornography and obscenity but further bans access to any "material deemed harmful to juveniles" regardless of the patron's age. The rules recite a portion of the civil rights act that prohibits sex discrimination and warns patrons that access to prohibited materials "could create an unlawful, sexually hostile environment, and might incite dangerous criminal misconduct."

In order to enforce the ban, library computers are loaded with software that blocks sites suspected of carrying questionable content. What's more, the terminals are placed in full view of library staff, who are instructed to monitor patrons' browsing and enforce the policy.

The policy was approved in October by a nine-member board of trustees by a 5-4 margin. John Nicholas, who chairs the board, insisted the law doesn't outstep constitutional restrictions. He said it would be illegal for the county to permit obscene materials to be accessed at the library. Furthermore, he said, content legally considered "harmful to juveniles" generally is considered to be sexually harassing to library staff and patrons and its display at the library could open the county up to legal action.

"We believe that with the compelling interest in [prohibiting] obscenity, indecency, and a hostile work environment for our employees, this has been deemed in plenty of cases to be a legitimate government interest," said Nicholas. "We have applied the most minimalist remedy that we could come up with."

According to the suit, the library uses a software product called X-Stop to block access to sites that may offer objectionable material. While LOG-ON Data, the company that makes the software, won't disclose which sites it blocks, the plaintiffs allege the software has blocked access to sites as innocuous as those owned by the Heritage Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Internet was entitled to the same level of First Amendment protection afforded to the press. People for the American Way, a 300,000-member group, was one of the many plaintiffs that prevailed in the suit, ACLU v. Reno. Ottinger said laws that place restrictions on speech are required to be narrowly tailored and to be content neutral. Like the CDA, he said, Loudoun County's policy would fail because it is overly broad.

 

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