Court asked to drop filtering suit

A Silicon Valley library asks a California court to throw out a suit filed by a local parent who wants the library to filter Net access for all patrons.

3 min read
A Silicon Valley library today asked a California court to throw out a lawsuit filed by a local parent who wants the library to filter Net access for all patrons.

The lawsuit alleges that the Livermore Public Library should inhibit adults' access to obscene sites and children's access to material deemed "harmful to minors" under the state penal code.

Identified in court records as "Kathleen R.," the parent claims her 12-year-old son repeatedly used the branch's computers to access online images of "seminude and nude women positioned in sexually alluring and explicit poses."

Today the American Civil Liberties Union filed a "friend of court" brief in support of the library.

The ACLU is against government mandates to filter public Net access on grounds that the blocking products exclude sites that are protected by the Constitution. Civil liberties groups also cite a provision in the Communications Decency Act that exempts libraries and Net access providers from liability for illegal material transmitted over their networks without their knowledge.

Civil liberties groups say it is parents' responsibility to monitor their children.

"This case raises very important issues about maintaining open Net access in the libraries," said Northern California ACLU attorney Ann Brick. "The bottom line is that it would be impossible for the library to comply with a court order like that without drastically restricting Internet access to Web sites that are protected by the First Amendment."

The Livermore library decided against filtering Net access on its ten computers in February 1997. But if the parent wins the lawsuit, the library would be forced to block access to certain sites. The next hearing in the case is set for October.

"It is a waste of public funds for minors to access obscene material," states the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the parent by the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based nonprofit legal defense organization specializing in religious freedom and parents' rights.

"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," it continues.

The ACLU is fighting a similar court battle against the Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia, which filters Net access for all patrons regardless of age.

Still, other libraries in California have opted not to filter Net access for adults, but some are putting up barriers for children.

In April, the Santa Clara County Library decided to filter online access on computers used by children, for example. On the other hand, the San Jose City Council rejected a plan to install filters on library computers.

However, some schools and libraries could be forced to filter Net access if one of a handful of bills is passed by Congress.

Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) Internet School Filtering Act would require schools receiving federal discounts on Net access to filter sites deemed "inappropriate" by their communities.

The Child Protection Act of 1998, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Oklahoma), is similar, but goes a step further by tying any computer equipment funding to filtering. It also requires that software filter for "obscenity" specifically, a task that civil liberties groups say is impossible with current filters.

The Education subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee has approved the amendment, which is part of an $81.9 billion government spending bill for fiscal 1999. The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider the measure next week.

Today the Electronic Privacy Information Center asked Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which is considering the McCain bill, to hold comprehensive hearings on both bills before the education spending bill is passed.

"I submit that an appropriations bill is not the appropriate vehicle for legislating in this complex area," EPIC's general counsel, David Sobel, wrote in a letter to Bliley. "I urge you to assert the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee in this matter and request that the Internet filtering provision be removed from the pending appropriations bill."