Net filtering back in court

The first constitutional challenge to filtering Net access at public libraries is expected next week in Loudoun County, Virginia.

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The first constitutional challenge to filtering Net access at public libraries could be decided next week in Loudoun County, Virginia.

The People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union have asked U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to grant a summary judgment in their lawsuit to overturn the Loudoun County Public Library's policy to install X-Stop filters on all of its computers to screen out online "material deemed harmful to juveniles."

Brinkema was set to rule today, but postponed her decision.

If Brinkema rules in favor of the civil liberties groups, the library will have to discontinue use of the filters. However, she also could uphold the library's policy. If she rejects the request for a summary judgment, a trial is expected by October 14.

The civil liberties groups argue that the library's Net blocking programs often bar entry to constitutionally protected sites with social value, such as newspaper columns by Rob Morse of the San Francisco Examiner, who is a plaintiff in the case.

"Loudoun County's policy is so broad and so abusive of First Amendment rights that even the librarians who are responsible for enforcing it have no idea what materials may be blocked or why," Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director for the People For the American Way, said in a statement.

Loudoun officials contend, however, that the filters help stave off legal liability in the case that Net surfers access obscene material and create a hostile work environment for library staff.

The outcome of the case will set a precedent for libraries across the country that filter Net access now or are considering doing so, with most polices targeting sexually explicit content.

Communities across the country are grappling with this issue, with libraries coming down on different sides--to filter all access, to screen content on those computers used only by children, or to leave access open. In at least one case, a Livermore, California, parent has sued her local library for its no-filtering policy.

Still, Loudoun has a tough road ahead in defending its filtering policy.

In a preliminary ruling in April that pushed forward the lawsuit, Brinkema said that Net filtering at public libraries is like blacking-out passages in books.

The Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion last summer when it threw out a crucial part of the Communications Decency Act, which made it a felony to give minors access to "indecent" online content.

In rejecting the county's request to dismiss the case, Brinkema also cited the high court's ruling against the CDA, stating that the county can't "in the interest of protecting children, limit the speech available to adults to what is fit for 'juveniles.'"

The latest chapter in the legal battle over Net filtering comes just after the House Commerce Committee passed a bill that aims to restrict Net content on the sites' side. The legislation would slap commercial sites with stiff penalties for giving minors access to "harmful material."