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Virginia library moves against Net filters

The state's Loudoun County Library implements new Net usage rules following a landmark federal ruling deeming its filtering policy a violation of the First Amendment.

    Virginia's Loudoun County Library is putting into place new Net usage rules following a landmark federal ruling that deemed its policy to filter online access for all patrons a violation of the First Amendment.

    The library's board of trustees voted 6-2 last night to adopt a policy that allows unfettered online access for adults who sign an "acceptable use" policy and agree not to view illegal material, such as child pornography. Adults also can activate filters if they choose.

    As of tomorrow, the revised policy will require minors to get written parental approval before they can surf the Net without filters. Children who don't have permission will have use Net terminals equipped with X-Stop blocking software, which attempts to bar access to sites deemed "harmful to minors" that contain obscenity and other illegal content.

    In cases of libraries that have only one computer, the filters will be disabled on the default setting, according to Cindy Timmerman, system-wide service manager for the Loudoun libraries.

    "This is the right thing to do. It leaves the decision to parents and lets an adult act like an adult," said trustee Bob Twigg, who opposed the original "filtering-for-all" policy.

    The library system's Net access has been disabled since last week, after U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema struck down Loudoun County Library's original Net filtering policy as unconstitutional because it hindered adult access to a wide range of material. The original policy was implemented last October.

    The library is not expected to appeal the ruling, according to sources close to the board, though it will take legal steps to preserve its right to do so.

    The board also is waiting for Brinkema's ruling determining the amount of attorney fees the library could be forced to pay to the plaintiffs in the case, who were represented by the People for the American Way Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "I think they made a real attempt to conform the policy to Brinkema's ruling. This policy is now acceptable to Mainstream Loudoun," said Robert Corn-Revere, a civil rights lawyer who represented a group of plaintiffs in the case that dubbed itself Mainstream Loudoun.

    "As a matter of law, the ruling has the force in the Eastern district of Virginia, but because Brinkema issued such a thorough opinion it should have persuasive authority elsewhere," he added. "This case should be the first step for any local library board in trying to decide what [Net access] policy they should implement."

    Brinkema's decision set a nationwide precedent about the constitutionality of installing filters on all Net access terminals at public libraries--institutions at the cornerstone of historical First Amendment challenges.

    The judge, a former librarian herself, said that Loudon's policy to filter the Net access of all patrons broadly stifled the free speech rights of adults. The policy "provided inadequate standards for restricting access and provides inadequate procedural safeguards to ensure prompt judicial review," she said.

    The closely watched case was the first constitutional challenge to Net filtering at libraries, an issue that has been debated throughout the country from California to Boston and Austin, Texas.

    The five trustees of the nine-member board who voted in favor of Loudoun's filtering policy last fall argued that allowing Net surfers to pull up obscene material could create a hostile work environment in violation of state and federal laws.

    The new Net access policy is narrower, in an attempt to comply with Brinkema's decision. In addition to the parental permission requirements, the library also will install privacy screens on all terminals.

    "The decision is made by private citizens, not the library," said Ken Bass, Loudoun County Library attorney. "I don't see any [constitutional] vulnerabilities in this policy."