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Library sued for not filtering Net

A California parent files a lawsuit against a public library to get it to install filters on its computers with Net access.

A Livermore, California, parent is hoping that a lawsuit she filed against the city will legally persuade it to install filtering software on its library computers that have Internet access--or otherwise limit children's unfettered access to the Net.

But the Livermore city librarian said the library board already weighed in on the controversial issue of library filtering, and decided against it.

An unnamed woman sued the library yesterday 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, according to the suit and the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based nonprofit legal defense organization specializing in religious freedom and parents' rights.

"We're filing this lawsuit because the fact that the Livermore Public Library as a matter of policy knowingly and willfully allows small, young children to have full access to harmful, obscene, and pornographic materials on the Internet," said Brad Dacus, president of the institute.

The institute is calling for Livermore find a way to keep children from gaining access via the Net to "sexual and other material harmful to minors."

The suit does not specify how this would be accomplished, but Michael Millen, the woman's attorney, said the library could filter access on some computers and not others or limit access to unfiltered computers by age, using a device such as a color-coded library card.

"What we're asking for is that the library stop allowing minors to access this extreme pornography," Millen said.

Library director Susan Gallinger said the library already considered filtering access to the Internet from its ten terminals in three branches and in February 1997, like many other libraries across the country, it decided against doing so.

All terminals are in the adult areas and are open to everyone. Most people, she said, use them to do basic research. But pornography is accessible.

This is the first formal complaint the library has had about unfiltered access since it started offering Net access four years ago, she said.

"Our concern with filtering is they filter out the good stuff as well as the bad," Gallinger said. "We don't feel we're in the position to tell anybody what they can or cannot look at in the library. Our policy is open access and we believe it is the responsibility of the parent to know what the child is doing.

"We're not arbiters of what people can and can't do and cannot read," she added. "It flies in the face of our entire library philosophy. We don't do that with books. We don't do that with cassettes. We don't do that with anything."

In other cases, the courts have weighed in on her side, so far.

Last summer the Supreme Court threw out the parts of the Communications Decency Act that made it a felony to send "indecent" content to minors over the Net. And last month a federal judge issued a decision decrying filtering at the Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia.

While civil liberties groups such as the ACLU have made a practice of suing libraries over their policies to implement filters, cases of citizens suing to get libraries to install them are more unusual.

"There would be serious constitutional problems if they were to install filters," said Northern California ACLU attorney Ann Brick. "The presumption in the library is open access."

The suit claims, among other things, that "it is a waste of public funds for minors to access obscene material, allowing the computers to access obscene material is a public nuisance, and the library premises are unsafe for children because of the presence of this material which is harmful to minors and because the City of Livermore refuses to take steps to prevent children from being so harmed while on their premises," according to the Pacific Justice Institute.

"I think it's a groundless lawsuit," said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "No one has a right to deprive someone else of their constitutional rights and that's what the introduction of filtering programs into libraries does. It restricts the speech available to public library patrons. If this woman objects to her child or children being able to access the Internet at the library, she should stop sending them to the library."

But Millen countered that while children have some constitutional rights, they don't have the same ones as adults.

"Children do not have a constitutional right to view obscene pornography," Millen said. "The library that was a traditionally safe place now is unsafe in the name of free speech."

While Millen acknowledges that filtering programs are imperfect, he said that for now, they are the best tools around to prevent children from viewing pornography. Let's use a very fine surgical knife and solve the problem as best we can."