The fate of a key Internet filtering case could be decided in the next few weeks--and free speech advocates say it is likely to be decided in their favor, thanks to a ruling issued today by a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema today said she will grant a summary judgment in a lawsuit by free speech advocates to overturn a controversial library filtering program in Loudoun County, Virginia.
The ruling means that the judge found that she has enough information to decide whether or not the filtering software on computers in the Loudoun County Public Library is unconstitutional because it blocks protected speech.
Because Brinkema already issued a strong preliminary ruling that likened library filtering to blacking out passages in books, civil libertarians who filed the suit are hopeful that she will decide the case in their favor.
Loudoun's library director, who has publicly opposed the filtering policy, agreed that Brinkema appears likely to rule against Loudoun's policy.
The People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union had asked Brinkema to overturn the Loudoun library's policy to install X-Stop filters on all its computers to screen out online "material deemed harmful to juveniles."
The civil liberties groups contend 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 officials have contended, 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.
But library director Douglas Henderson said today that the library board's composition has changed substantially since the policy was first implemented a year ago.
"The board's changed radically from the time the policy was passed," he said. "The feeling on the board right now is quite different than when the [rule] was passed. But the board decided that they would let it go at least to the first phase of the trial or summary judgment."
That way, if the board did decide to change the policy, "they would have some guidelines on how to make the change," Henderson said.
Ann Beeson, staff attorney for the ACLU, said that today's ruling means the judge will be focusing on the constitutional merits of the case. "The parties are in agreement about how the blocking software works," she said. "The only dispute is whether it's constitutional.
"We feel very confident that under the high constitutional test and based on the evidence she has in front of her, that we will win and she will strike down the policy," Beeson added.
Henderson agreed. "The ACLU is probably right," he said, adding that staving off a trial will "actually save the taxpayers money."
The ACLU, other civil liberties groups, and free speech advocates are looking to this case as an important step in testing whether publicly funded institutions such as libraries should mandate filtering of Net content, as far as the Constitution is concerned.
Though the Supreme Court notably struck down key portions of the Communications Decency Act that made it a felony to transmit "indecent" material to minors via the Net, the overall question about whether it is constitutionally sound to block some Net content has yet to be answered. Last month, a key House committee pushed forward a controversial Internet bill that would slap commercial sites with stiff penalties for giving minors access to "harmful material."
The Loudoun County case is seen as a bellwether because it is a first.
"It's the very first constitutional challenge that considers whether public institutions like libraries can prevent certain people from gaining access to information that they wouldn't be able to get any other way," the ACLU's Beeson said.
"Having access to information technology is crucial to surviving in today's kind of career environment," she added. "You can't succeed if you don't at least have access to basic information like the Internet and there are many, many people who don't have that access to technology anywhere else but their public library. This case is going to determine whether or not we're going to have a society of information haves and have nots."
Since Loudoun County put filters on the computers, Henderson said there have been very few complaints about them.
"We've gotten about 13 requests to have specific sites unblocked," he said. "Every one of those has been unblocked."
On the other hand, had there been no filtering policy, Henderson said he doubted that many people would be accessing the types of pornographic sites that the board originally feared they would.
Henderson said he had recommended a policy of open access, with parental permission for children to use the Internet.