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Library filtering suit dismissed

A California superior court judge throws out a lawsuit calling for mandatory filters on library computers used to surf the Internet.

    In what the ACLU is calling a victory for free speech, a California superior court judge today threw out a lawsuit that called for mandatory filters to be installed on library computers used to surf the Internet.

    But the attorney who filed the suit said that the case will not end here.

    A Livermore woman, identified only as Kathleen R., filed a lawsuit in May calling for the court to force the Livermore library system to install filtering software on library computers that have Internet access--or otherwise limit children's unfettered access to the Net.

    Judge George Hernandez of the Pleasanton-Dublin branch of the Alameda County Superior Court today dismissed the suit and told the woman that she had 14 days to amend it so that it was not prohibited by federal law, said Ann Brick, a staff attorney for the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union.

    The judge ruled that the lawsuit is prohibited by a federal law contained within a portion of the Communications Decency Act that was not thrown out by the Supreme Court. That provision basically says that an access provider is not responsible for the content that is provided through its service by third parties.

    That provision has been affirmed in several courts, including the Supreme Court, which declined to hear an appeal of a case in which a man tried to hold online service provider America Online legally accountable for defamatory messages that other members posted on its system.

    Brick called today's case "a victory for Internet access through libraries. It means that the public is going to have uncensored access to the Internet through their libraries, which for many people is their only source of Internet access. And that's a big victory for freedom of expression."

    But Mike Millen, who filed the suit on behalf of Kathleen R and the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based nonprofit legal defense organization specializing in religious freedom and parents' rights, said that today's ruling "is just one small step in a very long journey."

    Millen disagreed with the judge's interpretation of the CDA and said he plans to appeal. "I think the judge was definitely legally in error. They certainly have won round one of probably what's a three- or four-round battle. I would say that any sort of lawsuit based on obscenity, whether criminal or civil, is left untouched by the CDA. The judge did not agree with that. But I believe the law is clear."

    Kathleen R had sued Livermore after her 12-year-old son repeatedly downloaded pornographic images to a disk, printed them out at a relative's house, and then distributed them.

    Libraries have become a free speech lightening rod for those for and against filtering, with civil rights groups advocating unfettered access to the Internet and others calling for mandatory filtering to protect children from pornography and other adult material.

    So far, courts have ruled against the latter.

    While civil liberties groups argue that parents should be responsible for their own children and should not be able to curtail the access of others based on their own standards, parental rights groups such as the Pacific Justice Institute, have said that parents should not have to worry about their children accessing adult materials in the library.

    "Parents don't understand how dangerous the library has become for children," Millen said.

    Along with library fights and lawsuits, the war also is being waged on other--perhaps more powerful--fronts as well. President Clinton just signed into law an annual spending bill that includes several provisions that hold Internet service providers accountable for information that children obtain over the Internet. Civil liberties groups tomorrow plan to file suit against one such provision, dubbed the CDA II: the Child Online Protection Act.

    That law requires commercial site operators who offer "harmful" material to either check visitors' identifications or face up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison each time a minor gets access to the content.