Virginia county restricts Net access

The Loudoun County Library board approves a restrictive library filtering policy, while near Silicon Valley officials look at an antifiltering initiative.

3 min read
Spencer Ault had been leaning against voting for an Internet filtering system at the Loudoun County Library in Virginia. But in the end, he sided with the majority, tipping the library board's balance in favor of what some are calling one of the most restrictive library filtering policies in the country.

Civil libertarians have denounced the new regulations, saying that the 5 to 4 vote would restrict the freedom of speech of all patrons in the name of protecting children from pornography.

In fact, United States legislators had argued the same point when they passed the Communications Decency Act, but the Supreme Court struck it down, saying it was overly broad and vague and violated the right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Ever since then local public facilities such as schools and libraries have been grappling with how to handle the Internet, where everything, including pornographic images, are transmitted.

While some are opting for filtering in the libraries to shield children from pornography and other "objectionable" material, others are deciding against it.

Today, on the other side of the country, a governmental body is considering a recommendation to keep filters away from the county library system in the heart of Silicon Valley. The Joint Powers Authority, which oversees eight libraries and one branch serving ten cities in Santa Clara County, is slated to consider a recommendation made last week by an advisory committee to allow Santa Clara County Library patrons to view the Internet unhindered.

But the board members in Loudoun felt that filtering was the best way to go.

To Ault, an attorney by occupation, the issue was not about censorship at all, but rather, about selecting the materials available to patrons in a library.

"I understand the argument for First Amendment," he said. "I have reviewed the various case law, so I understand their concerns. But I believe it's actually unfounded with this policy. Libraries have always selected materials for their collections. The Loudoun County Library has never stocked on their shelves magazines such as Penthouse and Hustler. I see what's on the Internet as being no different than selecting the rest of the collection for the library."

Civil libertarians have argued, however, that the Internet is different from traditional media such as books, television, and radio, and the Supreme Court, at least in the case of the CDA, agreed.

"Libraries shouldn't be in the business of determining who has access to which information," said David Banisar, staff council for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "There's been a long-standing battle where people have been trying to restrict what goes into a library because they don't want their kids to see that particular information."

Instead, Banisar said parents should accompany their children to the library or teach them "to know what is right and what is wrong and not to look at something that the parent didn't want them to."

The American Library Association also has issued a policy opposing Internet filtering in libraries.

Since the CDA was overturned, government as well as others--including some civil libertarians--have advocated using products that filter information on the Net. However, they have drawn a distinction between private and public use of filters. Though some library boards throughout the nation have advocated the use of filters in libraries to protect the public, others have protested filtering for the same reason.

Ault said he had sided with the civil libertarians until he actually saw filters in place and felt confident that they could be implemented so that only constitutionally unprotected material--pornography, obscenity, and illegal content--would be screened.

Many filters have come under fire for screening out politically and socially controversial topics, such as lesbian and gay issues, rather than just screening for pornography. But Ault said he is confident that the library could use filters that allow social and political commentary while screening out "pornography."

The library director would have control over the filters, he added.

Loudoun is not the first county to pass filtering restrictions, and it most assuredly will not be the last. Banisar said he worries that every time another jurisdiction passes filtering restrictions it makes it a little easier for the next place down the road to do the same.

"The whole issue of what libraries do is very much up in the air," he said. "Clearly something that happens in one county can have a negative effect or positive effect in other counties."