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Free legal defense offered to libraries with Internet filters

WASHINGTON (BP)–In an effort to assuage the legal concerns of local officials who want to keep pornography away from kids in public libraries, a New York City-based public interest legal group is offering its services free to libraries that want to install anti-pornography Internet filtering systems on public computer terminals, CNSNews.com reported April 2.

The offer of pro bono legal aid comes from the Center for the Community Interest (CCI), which specializes in “quality of life issues” where individual liberties sometimes collide with community interests.

But when it comes to the matter of keeping pornography off library computers that children have access to, the group’s executive director said it’s difficult to find libraries or library boards willing to risk a potentially costly court battle.

“There are library boards that basically say, ‘When the issue comes up, should we use filtering technology?'” said David Castro, a former Philadelphia prosecuting attorney who now heads up CCI. “We’ve gotten involved in a dialog with them to say we believe that it’s constitutional and that you’re within your powers to use filters, and the board has decided against it because of their fear of being sued.

“We want to find somebody, a library board, who’s got the courage to kind of go out in public and say, ‘Look, we’re using filters, we think it’s constitutional and we’re not afraid,'” Castro told CNSNews.com.

Both the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union are opposed to the use of Internet filters in public libraries, arguing that the First Amendment guarantees the right to view pornography via taxpayer-funded computers.

“I think that the ACLU and the American Library Association have taken a clear position that the use of filters is, in their view, unconstitutional,” Castro said. “In at least one case we know of, the ACLU has actually sued a county library, and I believe the view is prevalent that they would do that in the future.”

In fact, the ACLU and ALA have filed suit in Philadelphia to overturn the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires the use of blocking technology on computers in public libraries.

The act, which was authored by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., ties certain federal funding to the installation of Internet filters on public computer terminals.

“Forcing libraries to choose between funding and censorship means millions of library users will lose, particularly those in the most poverty-stricken and geographically isolated areas of the country,” said ALA President Nancy Kranich in a March 20 statement.

But the financial fear goes beyond simply paying for legal representation, and Castro said it’s not uncommon for the party losing in court to pay the legal fees of the winning party in civil rights cases, which is how many Internet filtering cases are framed.

Castro said legal cases involving the use of pornography-filtering technology on public computers, juxtaposed with people wanting to use those computers to view pornography, are good illustrations of “places where these ideas have been taken to extremes that are undermining quality of life,” in communities.

While the Center for Community Interest is not opposed to personal liberties, Castro said there are instances in which competing rights collide.

“We think that a lot times, when you polarize a dispute and you view the rights of the individual as opposed to the rights of government, what gets lost is a right that really sits between government and the individual, which is the right of the community and the interests of the community,” Castro said.

“This library case is a great case in point,” he said. “Claims about First Amendment rights of individuals threaten to make libraries unsafe and uncivil places for kids, and that’s sad.”

For now, Castro said no local library systems have come forward to avail themselves of the CCI’s no-cost legal services offer, but he said he’s hopeful. “What it gets down to is common sense and balance,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be deprived of access to pornography if we exclude it from libraries, ya know?”
Hogenson is the executive editor of CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Scott Hogenson