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ACLU slams library Net filtering

The group issues a report calling the mandatory use of blocking software at public institutions "inappropriate and unconstitutional."

The American Civil Liberties Union, already pursuing a lawsuit against a Virginia library that filters Net access, today issued a report calling the mandatory use of blocking software at public institutions "inappropriate and unconstitutional."

"We have been monitoring the use of filters in libraries around the country for the last couple of years," Ann Beeson, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said today. "We have discovered that there are many problems with their use. And because they are so imperfect, we have concluded that the mandatory use of them in public libraries violates the First Amendment."

The ACLU and other free speech groups have long opposed the use of Net site blocking programs in public libraries on grounds that most of the products have a tendency to filter out constitutionally protected speech, such as sites about safe sex or women's rights.

Today's 17-page report, "Censorship in a Box: Why Blocking Software is Wrong for Public Libraries," builds on a study the ACLU released last year.

In February, the ACLU joined the People for the American Way's lawsuit against the public library in Loudoun County, Virginia, which filters access for all patrons regardless of age.

Loudoun library officials say the policy was enacted to bar access to sites deemed pornographic or harmful to minors and to stave off sexual harassment lawsuits that could result when library staff or patrons are subjected to viewing "objectionable" material from another person's computer screen.

The case is expected to go to trial in the fall, but Loudoun is by no means the first library to filter Net access.

Communities across the country are grappling with this issue, with libraries coming down on both sides--to filter all access or leave it open.

Some are landing in the middle, deciding to limit access on those computers used only by children or by not offering chat room services, for example

In at least one case, a Livermore, California, parent has sued her local library for its no-filtering policy.

The ACLU calls for libraries to reject filtering and to instead adopt "acceptable use policies" regarding Net access.

Other suggestions include establishing time limits for Net use and requesting that Net access in schools be limited to school-related work. Also, the ACLU encouraged the use of programs in which minors complete seminars on how to use the Net appropriately and what to avoid.

Similar to recommendations by the American Library Association, the ACLU calls on libraries to provide links to Web sites that are good resources for children and teens. In addition, libraries are advised to install privacy screens to protect users' privacy when viewing "sensitive" information.

But the new report also slams Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) Internet School Filtering Act, which requires schools receiving federal discounts on Net access to filter sites deemed "inappropriate" by their communities.

In another ACLU action against laws that restrict Net content, on Monday the group will have its first court hearing in a case it filed to overturn a New Mexico law that makes it a misdemeanor to use a computer to knowingly disseminate to minors material that "in whole or in part depicts actual or simulated nudity, sexual intercourse, or any other sexual conduct."

The ACLU charges that the law violates the First Amendment, citing the Supreme Court's decision throwing out the Communications Decency Act, which made it a felony to use the Net to show or send "indecent" content to those under age 18.

In addition to the CDA ruling, the ACLU will rely on the federal decision in the American Library Association vs. New York Gov. George Pataki last June. In that case, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska ruled that New York's CDA-like law was invalid on grounds that it violated the Constitution's commerce clause, which forbids one state from regulating another state's commercial activity.