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Virginia rejects Net filter mandate

State lawmakers reject a proposal that would have required public libraries to filter Net content to get $16 million in funding.

Virginia lawmakers have rejected a proposal to mandate Net filtering at public libraries statewide.

The decision yesterday marks the latest victory for free speech advocates who charge that blocking technologies often censor socially valuable sites that are protected by the First Amendment.

Proponents of library filtering policies argue that taxpayers shouldn't foot the bill for children--and, in some cases, older patrons--to pull down pornographic or adult-oriented sites.

The Virginia House voted against an amendment buried in an appropriations bill that would have required public libraries to install blocking software on computers to get a total of $16 million in funding.

Tying government dollars to filtering mandates is becoming a common tactic. For example, Congress is considering Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) bill that would force schools that apply for federal Net access discounts to filter out "inappropriate" Net sites. (See related story)

Despite the legislature's move in Virginia, however, there still is a landmark lawsuit underway in the state to test the constitutionality of library filtering.

A local group, the People for the American Way, and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the Loudoun County Public Library over its policy to install blocking software on all computers. The policy prohibits accessing child pornography (which already is illegal in the United States), obscenity, or any "material deemed harmful to juveniles," regardless of the patron's age.

The federal court decision on the case is expected by April.

"The role of libraries is to be centers of learning and free inquiry and provide the widest range of materials; it is not their role to act as police," said Larry Ottinger, cocounsel in the lawsuit against Loudoun County.

"Picking the best resources and removing materials because you don't like the content are two totally different things," he added. "Hopefully our case here will provide an important precedent in establishing First Amendment protection for public libraries [that offer Internet access]."

Also this month, the Austin Public Library took down some of its barriers to the Net. Like Loudoun, Austin has been under fire for installing filtering software on all computers. On March 9, the city launched a 60-day pilot project to turn off the software on four Net terminals for those 18 years or older who show a photo ID.