The American Civil Liberties Union is considering filing a landmark lawsuit against a Southern California county over its policy to filter Net access at public libraries.
Communities across the country are debating whether to block access in public libraries to sexual, violent, or profane Web sites, especially when it comes to young surfers. But groups like the ACLU and the American Library Association are trying to derail such efforts because they say it is unconstitutional for libraries to use filtering programs that also censor sites with redeeming social value.
The ACLU may bring its first challenge against Kern County, a large agriculture community. "It is a priority for us to fight this trend," national ACLU staff attorney Ann Beeson said today. "The product that is being used in Kern blocks access to a wide variety of valuable sites, not just for adults, but minors as well."
The ACLU also is closely watching developments in Austin, Texas, where filtering software is installed on Net-access terminals.
Citing a California state law that prohibits making "sexually explicit" material available to those under age 18, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted last summer to install N2H2's Bess blocking system on all public library computers.
Bess has various filtering options, but for about six months the library was using a very strict setting designed for schools. Many sites about safe sex and gay and lesbian magazines, for example, were not accessible. Adult patrons could ask to override blocks, but the ACLU says this policy wasn't clear.
Three weeks ago, Kern County began limiting Net access on only those computers designated for use by minors. Still, the city is grappling with how to give open access to adults when some branches only have one computer.
"It has been difficult to implement because this is new ground," said Bernie Barmann, the county's counsel. "We are continuing to work on other issues such as what to do when an adult pulls up a [sexually] graphic site and a child walks by."
Both Beeson and Barmann want to avoid a lawsuit. But even the blocking-software maker says it may be time for a court to decide the constitutionality of Net filtering at public libraries.
"We support the ACLU in bringing these issues out," said Peter Nickerson, chief executive of N2H2. "We need to know if it is possible for the library to block sites the community finds are obscene or objectionable. But if the courts were to decide that filtering was not [constitutional] in this case, then some libraries would not provide Net access and that would be a tragedy."
Until a court decides, each community is setting its own standards. For example, last week the Santa Clara County Joint Powers Authority voted to continue offering unfiltered Net access, which mirrors neighboring San Jose's recently adopted policy.
But one day earlier, the Loudoun County Library board in Virginia voted in favor of filtering online pornography and other "illegal materials." (See related story)
Beeson said she hopes Kern County will switch gears and follow Silicon Valley lawmakers' lead. "Public libraries are government entities and therefore must abide by the First Amendment. A library can't decide to filter certain Internet content just because they find it offensive," she said.
Kern County officials say it is also their job to protect minors from sexually explicit material. They are not concerned about a potential lawsuit. "We think the ACLU is finally understanding what we're trying to do," Barmann added.