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Virginia library battle rages

Free speech advocates are trying to halt passage of a law that would force public libraries to install filtering programs on all Net computers.

Free speech advocates in Virginia today are trying to halt passage of a law that would force public libraries to install filtering programs on all computers with Net access.

The move is the latest twist in a battle raging in that state--and elsewhere in the nation--regarding the constitutionality of public institutions restricting access to certain Net sites.

Most policies target sexually explicit or illegal material, but civil liberties groups have long argued that the technology used to block such sites also bars content with redeeming social value.

People For the American Way (PFAW) today called on the Virginia state legislature to reject an amendment buried in a House appropriations bill that would mandate all Virginia public libraries to install blocking software on library computers to get state funding. A similar provision was pushed in Ohio last year.

"We've found that censoring software has blocked things like information on breast cancer--because it contains the word 'breast'--and information on Middlesex County, because it contains the word 'sex.' This amendment is an unconstitutional 'solution' in search of a problem," PFAW president Carole Shields said in a statement.

In December, PFAW filed a lawsuit against Loudoun County Public Library over its policy, which prohibits accessing child pornography--already illegal in the United States in any form--and obscenity, but further bans access to any "material deemed harmful to juveniles," regardless of the patron's age. The American Civil Liberties Union is now fighting alongside PFAW.

But some state lawmakers are working to expand the contested policy throughout the state, the local civil liberties group charges.

Delegate Bob Marshall of Prince William County introduced the amendment that the House of Delegates has passed. The state House and Senate are now discussing the bill and could vote on changes before midnight. Then both houses of the legislature will have to vote on the revised appropriations bill. The session is scheduled to adjourn Saturday.

The amendment is tied to about $16 million in state financial assistance for public libraries.

"The governing board of a local public library receiving state aid from this item, or under this act, shall by September 1, 1998, implement guidelines designed to prevent, to the extent technically feasible, the selecting, acquiring, accessing, or downloading of obscene materials or child pornography through any computer owned, leased, or controlled by the local public library and used by the general public," Marshall's amendment states.

"Nothing in this item shall be construed to prohibit any library board from developing and implementing other lawful guidelines that are more restrictive than the provisions described above in this item," it continues.

Congress is considering a similar proposal. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced legislation requiring schools that apply for federal Net access discounts to filter out indecent Net sites. The up to $2.25 billion in annual discounts, also known as "e-rates," are supposed to be doled out to schools and libraries starting this year by the Federal Communications Commission, under direction from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.