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Group calls for library Net filtering

Silicon Valley parents in favor of Net filtering are putting pressure on elected officials to create more stringent policies in public libraries.

In the latest call for libraries to filter Internet sites, a group of parents has persuaded elected officials in Silicon Valley to open up debate about its unrestricted online access policy.

Dubbed Keep the Internet Decent and Safe (KIDS), the group wants the Santa Clara County Library District Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to install filtering software on computers that are hooked to the Net in order to block sites that may contain child pornography or other illegal material. The JPA includes a council member from every city in the county and two county supervisors.

A letter is circulating on the Net encouraging people in Santa Clara County to attend an October 15 meeting of the county's Citizen's Advisory Committee, which will study the issue. On October 23, the JPA will hear public comment and is expected to review its policy, which was affirmed by the county board of supervisors in 1995. The JPA could vote on a course of action to address the concerns of groups such as KIDS or decide to stick with the current library policy for its nine branches.

In May, two members of KIDS asked the Santa Clara County district attorney's office to bring criminal charges against the Gilroy Public Library for exposing minors to pornography. No children were identified as victims, so charges were never filed.

Prior to the incident, the district attorney's office issued an opinion stating that "the county could make a viable First Amendment argument in defense of a refusal to curb Internet access to minors through means of blocking software," and that "it does not appear that the county would be subject to any liability under either of the California obscenity statutes."

Town by town, elected officials and libraries are deciding how to appease public concern about access to obscene or indecent sites in cyberspace, which has been intensified by the Supreme Court's rejection of the Communications Decency Act in June. (See related story)

Two weeks ago, for example, the city council in San Jose, California, rejected a proposal to install blocking software on Net terminals designated for use by children. On the same day the city council in Coppell, Texas, went the other way, voting to filter online access for patrons of all ages.

"The City of San Jose's decisions would have an impact here," said Susan Fuller, Santa Clara County's head librarian. "People under the age of 18 have different maturity levels, so it is also the position of the library here that parents [not libraries] should make a call about what their children are ready for."

Like the American Library Association, Fuller believes filtering software blocks too much or too little, and therefore is not an effective solution for libraries. "We have an obligation to provide a collection with the broadest resources possible. Filters cut out a lot of speech that is protected by the First Amendment," she said. "The public library is the place that the Constitution comes to life for average individuals because you'll find viewpoints outside of those in your own living room."

Santa Clara libraries have taken some steps to curb children's access to adult material, she said. In Gilroy, for example, there has been a computer set aside for the use of research CD-ROMs, instead of the Net.

Still, KIDS has remained unsatisfied with the effort, according to Fuller. A representative of the group couldn't be reached for comment, but KIDS is expected to stick to its guns at the library policy meetings later this month.

Although the debate often comes down to filter or not to filter, at least one former librarian says the nation's public data repositories have a duty to review materials they make available, including sites on the Net.

"Librarians filter material everyday. They buy materials based on reviews and material selection policies. For librarians to say they don't filter anything is a joke," said Jean Armour Polly, who was a public librarian for 16 years and is author of the Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages.

"I don't think public equipment and public resources should deliver illegal services or material to anybody," she added. Polly suggested that library system administrators block sites that are brought to their attention as being illegal.