Court won’t dismiss suit over library’s Internet restrictions
VIRGINIA–In mid-April, a federal judge in Alexandria declined to dismiss a lawsuit challenging on First Amendment grounds a Loudoun County Library Board policy requiring all computers in public libraries to be equipped with software that blocks access to Internet adult-themed websites, e-mail and “chat” rooms, and requiring minors to obtain written parental permission before using the Internet at all.
Federal District Judge Leonie Brinkema held that the policy was a content-based restriction on speech subject to strict judicial scrutiny, meaning that it had to be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest.
The board adopted the policy in October 1997 to block access to child pornography, “obscene material” and “material deemed harmful to juveniles under state law.” To implement the policy, the board chose “X-Stop,” a commercial software product intended to limit access to sites deemed to violate the policy.
An association of library patrons challenged the policy in federal court in Alexandria, arguing that it restricts access to protected speech. The board asked the court to dismiss the complaint, noting that library patrons denied access to a site could submit a written request, which must include their name, telephone number, and a detailed explanation of why they desire access to the blocked site. The plaintiffs countered that the “unblocking” provision of the policy lacked clear criteria.
The court compared the case to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Board of Education v. Pico, in which the Court reviewed the decision of a local board of education to remove certain books from a high school library because they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” That case did not result in a clear majority, but in a plurality decision, Justice Brennan held that the First Amendment limits the government’s right to remove materials on the basis of their content from a high school library.
According to Brinkema, once the library board chose to provide Internet access to the public, it could not selectively restrict certain categories of Internet speech because it disfavors their content. The court further noted that Supreme Court has held that the government may not limit material available to the adult population to “only what is fit for children.” (Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun Public Library; Plaintiffs Counsel: Ronald James Wiltsie, Washington, D.C.)