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Library's Internet filtering program ruled unconstitutional

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Library's Internet filtering program ruled unconstitutional 12/14/98 VIRGINIA--The Loudoun County Library cannot use commercial filters on library computers to prevent…

Library’s Internet filtering program ruled unconstitutional


VIRGINIA–The Loudoun County Library cannot use commercial filters on library computers to prevent access to sexually explicit material on the Internet because the filtering system was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, federal District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria ruled in late November.

Brinkema found that the library’s Internet filtering policy “offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment.” The judge, a former librarian herself, noted that by buying commercial software to filter Internet sites, the Library Board was abdicating its constitutional responsibilities to set clear standards itself.

Brinkema held that the library was a limited public forum and that the filtering policy therefore had to serve a compelling state interest and had to be narrowly drawn to achieve that end before it would be found constitutional. Brinkema found that “minimizing access to illegal pornography and avoidance of creation of a sexually hostile environment are compelling government interests,” but found that the filtering policy was not necessary to achieve those interests.

The policy also was not narrowly tailored, the judge ruled. Brinkema wrote that the installation of “privacy screens” around terminals is a much less restrictive alternative that would further defendant’s interest in preventing the development of a sexually hostile environment. Brinkema also noted that filtering software could be installed on only some Internet terminals, and minors could be limited to using those terminals. Alternatively, she wrote, the library could install filtering software that could be turned off when an adult is using the terminal.

Finally, Brinkema found the library’s policy unconstitutional because it restricts adult access to material to that which is fit for children.

In early December, following the court’s decision, a majority of Loudoun County Library Board members directed that their attorneys take all steps necessary to preserve the right to appeal. The board also approved a new Internet Use Policy that again provides for filtering software, but allows adult patrons to decide whether or not to use it, and allows parents to decide for their minor children.

In October 1997, the Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library passed a policy which required the library staff to install Internet blocking software on library computer. The software was to block sites displaying “obscene material” and “material deemed harmful to juveniles.” In December 1997, a complaint against the Board of Trustees was filed by People for the American Way on behalf of Mainstream Loudoun, a small group of Loudoun County residents. Subsequently, the ACLU intervened on behalf of several Web sites. In September 1998, each of the parties moved for a judgment in their favor. (Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library)