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ACLU takes filtering to court

The ACLU asks a federal court to declare that screening Net sites at public libraries infringes on constitutionally protected speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union today is asking a federal court to declare that screening Net sites at public libraries infringes on patrons' rights to download constitutionally protected speech, including controversial news stories.

The civil liberties group is joining a court fight already under way in Loudoun County, Virginia, where the public library system has been sued by the People for the American Way for installing blocking software on every computer with a Net connection in an effort to bar access to sites deemed pornographic or harmful to minors.

Libraries have been pushed to the front lines of the online censorship battle since the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, which made it a felony to provide "indecent" material to minors via the Net. Now the ACLU and groups such as the American Library Association are fighting local libraries in Southern California, Boston, and Austin, Texas, regarding their decisions to filter out sexual or otherwise indecent material as well as an array of other Net sites that contain adult language or themes. The American Library Association also advises against Net filtering at libraries.

The Loudoun case was filed in December, but the ACLU joined the lawsuit today on behalf of the eight plaintiffs, including the Safer Sex Page, Banned Books Online, the American Association of University Women Maryland, and Rob Morse, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

The plaintiffs contend that their content has artistic, scientific, medical, or social value. But it is still being banned by Loudoun County's blocking program, X-Stop, which claims to filter Net sites based on key words or using a constantly updated list of sites containing pornography or bomb-making instructions.

Loudoun's policy was slimly approved by a nine-member board of trustees by a 5-4 vote in October. Officials for the 100,000-person county, which is home to America Online, have argued that it is illegal for it to give people access to obscene materials at the library. Proponents of the plan also say the county could be sued for sexual harassment if library staff and patrons are subjected to viewing "objectionable" material from another person's computer screen.

Library officials who voted in favor of the policy and X-Stop weren't immediately available for comment. But opponents of the policy say Loudoun is blocking more than the online equivalent of adult bookstores.

"This case presents an important question about whether the government can prevent Internet speakers from communicating constitutionally protected information online to people whose only access to the Internet may be their local public library," said Ann Beeson, ACLU national staff attorney.

In Morse's columns in the Examiner, for example, the topics could include "homosexuals" and "AIDS." He also has criticized city officials for attending a raunchy party where "sadomasochist" acts were demonstrated.

His digital columns can't slip by X-Stop unless the program is set to bypass his newspaper's site. However, according to the ACLU's complaint, the library is blocking all of The Gate, the main home page of both the Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Words are a very poor indicator of content--they don't give you context," Morse said today. "I write a lot about gay and lesbian issues, politics, and the huge AIDS crisis we've had here. That could all be blocked."

Referring to the media frenzy over allegations that President Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Morse says Loudoun may be hindering access to all major online news sources these days.

"I don't run Clinton or Lewinsky jokes," he said. "I do think it's odd that newspapers would manage to find themselves banned from libraries, without even knowing they are being censored."

The ACLU has been seeking a constitutional opinion on Net filtering in public libraries. A closely watched dispute over a similar policy in Kern County, California, was settled out of court last week when the county agreed to lift its library filters after the ACLU threatened a lawsuit.

For almost two years, the county has run a filtering program on most of its 50 Net terminals to screen out sexually oriented and obscene sites for patrons under the age of 18. However, adults had to use the same machines.

Now libraries with just one computer will not screen any Net sites, and the county is spending $40,000 to buy more PCs so adults and minors can choose if they would like to surf on computers with filters activated. (See related story)

The ACLU will present oral arguments in the Loudoun case on February 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The ACLU's involvement in the case has escalated the drive for a new policy in Loudoun. At the end of this month, some trustee members who voted against the initial policy will submit an alternative plan in hopes of snuffing out the costly lawsuit.

"It basically would let adults decide if they want the filters or not, and let parents decide if they want them for children," said Bob Twigg, a trustee member, who hasn't decided whether to support the new proposal. He said the problem is what he calls the "teenage-boy dynamic"--meaning the kids with open Net access permission could then show those who don't the "good stuff" on the Net.

But Twigg also strongly believes that the current policy is unacceptable. "We have a right to take safeguards for children, but we can't treat adults like children," he said. "This lawsuit is an expensive proposition to defend a lousy, lousy, lousy policy."