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Bill would have communities adopt library computer-use rules

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Prior Restraints         Jun 13, 2001    

Bill would have communities adopt library computer-use rules

  • The state effort mirrors the federal Children Online Protection Act that was enjoined by a federal appeals court.

Legislation under consideration in Massachusetts aims to curtail the content computer users at public libraries can access. The bill mandates that either a local school board or governing body of a library outline what it deems inappropriate.

On June 4, the State Administration Committee reported out the bill, which was introduced in January. The next committee assignment has not been announced.

The wording of the bill carefully omits any reference to filtering software. Legislative efforts to require public libraries to install mechanisms that would bar access to Web sites based on keywords entered by a user have resulted in both state and federal lawsuits.

“We are asking (communities) to develop their own policy, period,” said Darren Johnson, the press aide for the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Francis Marini, R-Hanson.

At a minimum, the Massachusetts bill requires public libraries to enact a written acceptable-use policy that forbids access to a handful of material, such as obscenity, gross depictions, depictions of sexual acts or information encouraging or advocating satanic cults, intolerance or extremist behavior.

The bill, H.B. 3428, attempts to exclude material “harmful to minors,” a phrase similar to that used in the federal Children Online Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1998. Last June, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) unanimously decided to keep in place an injunction against enforcing the COPA because the statute did not clearly indicate to Internet publishers what material would be acceptable for publication. The appeals court said an undue burden would be placed upon commercial Web publishers to ensure that the content does not violate the law.

The reach of the Massachusetts bill is greater than the stalled federal law because it would prohibit “any person” from using the library’s computer equipment for sending, receiving, viewing or downloading the offending material. The COPA includes an age restriction and requires commercial Web site operators to collect verification of a date of birth, such as a credit card number or an adult access code, before permitting access to material deemed “harmful to minors” by community standards. The penalty for an offense includes a $50,000 fine and six months in prison.

The bill also bars public library computer users from accessing information about the sale, consumption or production of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco products.

The governing boards are also directed to create appropriate penalties for willful violations.

(H.B. 3428) SM

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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