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Library Net access under renewed attack

Library filtering foes once again will face off in court later this month, in a case that has become the symbolic flip side of a previous bellwether case.

Library filtering foes once again will face off in court later this month, in a case that has become the symbolic flip side of the bellwether Loudoun County Library case.

In November a federal judge ruled that the Loudoun County Library was violating the Constitution by installing Internet filters on all of its computers providing Net access. On January 13, a parent in Livermore, California--in tandem with a religious organization--will sue for precisely the opposite reason: because the Livermore Public Library failed to install filters on its computers, allowing patrons full access to the Net.

The plaintiffs--a Livermore See related story: Civil liberties online in
1998 parent identified only as "Kathleen R." and the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based nonprofit legal defense organization specializing in religious freedom and parents' rights--filed a lawsuit in May after the woman's 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.

Alameda County Superior Court judge George Hernandez Jr. in October dismissed the bulk of the suit, arguing it was preempted by a federal law contained within a portion of the Communications Decency Act that was not thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Since then, however, the plaintiffs have amended their complaint and are asking the court to force Livermore to install filters, citing the 14th Amendment. They are alleging that Livermore, with its policy of allowing unfettered access to the Net, is violating citizen rights to due process, and "is placing children in danger," said Mike Millen, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.

"What our lawsuit contends is that the library actively places children in danger of severe psychological harm by providing them with obscene pornography," Millen said.

But Dan Sodegren, assistant city attorney for the city of Livermore said the case is weak and that Livermore is likely to win. "The 14th Amendment was designed to protect against arbitrary state action," he said.

He noted that Livermore didn't actually take any action at all, adding: "The basis of this case is that we didn't do anything."

Courts have time and again ruled against mandatory filtering in libraries. But new cases challenging libraries that either filter too much or filter too little continue to arise.

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, said today that the Livermore library, by allowing anyone to access anything on the Net--including pornography--is committing "a severe breach of the public trust."

"Public entities should not be immune from answering to the harm to young children they know could occur by exposure to this material, material which would be illegal to be distributed to minors in virtually any other setting," he said.

The library has a responsibility to "protect minor children," he added.

But the library, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, has stated that its role is not to filter information, but rather to provide it.

"Right now the library's policy is free and open access, and it's the responsibility of the user to monitor what is coming in," said library director Susan Gallinger. "In the case of children, it's the responsibility of parents [to monitor what is being accessed]."

Gallinger said the library has not received other complaints about its policy since the case was filed, and, in fact, has received many letters of support.

Millen said he expected that, by the time this case winds its way through the court system, given the promise of appeals on both sides, the applicable law will have changed.

"I strongly believe the law is going to change," he said. "[Meanwhile, this case] is helping to raise national awareness."