October 24, 1997 1:55 PM PDT

Santa Clara libraries won't filter

County attorneys in the heart of Silicon Valley will be asking the courts to decide whether the Santa Clara County Libraries have the legal right to offer unfettered access to the Internet.

The board overseeing the county library system voted yesterday to unanimously to keep offering filter-free Internet access and to ask a judge to rule on the legality of that policy.

The Joint Powers Authority (JPA) was responding to attempts and threats from a pro-filtering group, dubbed Keep the Internet Decent and Safe (KIDS), to have county librarians arrested for exposing minors to pornography, according to county attorney Ann Ravel.

"The KIDS people have been threatening to arrest librarians," Ravel said today. "They are picketing the libraries. They are saying open access is inappropriate."

So instead of waiting for its decision to be challenged, the county will go to the courts to ask for "declaratory relief"--in essence, asking a judge to rule on the issue on "whether the libraries' policy is correct or whether we should be providing filters in the children's rooms or parental consent," Ravel added.

County attorneys already issued an opinion saying they think the library could use the First Amendment to defend its decision to offer unfettered access to the Net.

Civil libertarians who have been arguing against filtered access in libraries hailed yesterday's vote to offer free access to the Net.

The decision contrasts one made earlier this week by a library board on the other side of the country. The Loudoun County Library board in Virginia voted Monday in favor of filtering information from the Internet. (See related story)

Board members there said that they could use filters that only blocked pornography and illegal materials. But in Santa Clara, officials unanimously went against filtering.

"I think it's obviously good news," said Bennett Haselton, coordinator for Peacefire, an anticensorship organization for students and minors, about the vote. "Legally," though, "nothing actually happened."

If, however, the board goes forward with plans to take the case to court, that could result in a precedent-setting ruling, he noted.

It also could help take the political heat off of library boards deciding against filtering, Ravel said. For Santa Clara, "it would be far better to get one kind of resolution from a court: that it is not just a political choice but something to be found legal."

In Virginia, board members argued that filtering is not equivalent to censorship, saying they could use filters that only blocked pornography and illegal materials.

But in Santa Clara, California, county librarian Susan Fuller said that she has never seen a filter that does not block "protected speech," inadvertently or otherwise.

"There are none out there that only block illegal material," she told CNET's NEWS.COM today. "Right now, it would be a fair thing to say filters are based on value systems. Filters do block speech protected by the First Amendment."

The Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the Santa Clara libraries, agreed with her and an advisory body that had recommended against the filters, Fuller said.

Fuller said that the library also is exploring other options to try to appease parents who are worried that their children will be able to access pornography and other materials inappropriate for children.

As technology develops, she said the county libraries will continue adding options, such as letting users filter their own content according to their individual preferences. The filters, however, would not be implemented on a librarywide basis.

"You might offer a couple of different kinds of filters that have different kinds of philosophies so you can choose your own level of blocking," Fuller added. "These things aren't possible at the moment but we think they will be in the future."

The board also asked librarians to set up computers in the children's area with CD-ROMs to give them a non-Internet option when using the computer. She noted the county already has done this in its Gilroy library and found them to be popular.

While access to pornography has been a hot topic, patrons rarely go to those types of sites, according to Fuller. Rather, they use the Internet as an informational tool. "It really is the great equalizer," she said. "Even in the smallest library, where they don't have the space or budget for materials, now on the Internet it's all there."

Reporter Courtney Macavinta contributed to this report.

 

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