A Washington-based civil rights group sues the Loudoun County Public Library, claiming its Net filtering policy is unconstitutional.
The Washington-based People for the
American Way, which helped defeat the Communications Decency Act, is
representing 11 plaintiffs who say Loudoun County Public Library's
requirement is unconstitutional.
"The First Amendment prohibits government from imposing content-based
restrictions on speech," said Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney at
People for the American Way. "There's a substantial amount of
constitutionally protected speech that's getting filtered out."
Since the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that speech on the Internet
is entitled to a high level of constitutional protection, groups opposed to
the access of porn on the Net have directed their efforts at getting
schools and libraries to install software that prevents "indecent" sites from
being accessed. Civil liberties groups, emboldened by the high court
ruling, have been searching for a test case in which to challenge the
The policy prohibits
accessing child pornography and obscenity but further bans access to any "material
deemed harmful to juveniles" regardless of the patron's age. The rules
recite a portion of the civil rights act that prohibits sex discrimination
and warns patrons that access to prohibited materials "could create an
unlawful, sexually hostile environment, and might incite dangerous criminal
In order to enforce the ban, library computers are loaded with software
that blocks sites suspected of carrying questionable content. What's more,
the terminals are placed in full view of library staff, who are instructed
to monitor patrons' browsing and enforce the policy.
The policy was approved in October by a nine-member board of trustees by a
5-4 margin. John Nicholas, who chairs the board, insisted the law doesn't
outstep constitutional restrictions. He said it would be illegal for the
county to permit obscene materials to be accessed at the library.
Furthermore, he said, content legally considered "harmful to juveniles"
generally is considered to be sexually harassing to library staff and
patrons and its display at the library could open the county up to legal
"We believe that with the compelling interest in [prohibiting] obscenity,
indecency, and a hostile work environment for our employees, this has been
deemed in plenty of cases to be a legitimate government interest," said
Nicholas. "We have applied the most minimalist remedy that we could come up
According to the suit, the library
uses a software product called X-Stop to block access to sites that may
offer objectionable material. While LOG-ON
Data, the company that makes the software, won't disclose which sites
it blocks, the plaintiffs allege the software has blocked access to sites
as innocuous as those owned by the Heritage Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Internet was entitled to the same
level of First Amendment protection afforded to the press. People for the
American Way, a 300,000-member group, was one of the many plaintiffs that
prevailed in the suit, ACLU v. Reno. Ottinger said laws that place
restrictions on speech are required to be narrowly tailored and to be
content neutral. Like the CDA, he said, Loudoun County's policy would fail
because it is overly broad.
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