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Library’s Internet restrictions struck down by federal judge

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (BP)–In an early court battle over restrictions of Internet use in public libraries, a federal judge has struck down a Virginia county’s policy for filtering sexually explicit materials from computer terminals used by the general public.
The federal judge, Leonie M. Brinkema of Alexandria, Va., herself a former librarian, made the ruling — without a trial — in a case filed by People for the American Way and later joined by the American Civil Liberties Union. According to Brinkema’s Nov. 23 ruling, blocking the Internet “offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment.”
An American Library Association official, director of intellectual freedom Judith Krug, was among those filing court statements in behalf of the suit.
The ruling applies only to Leesburg, Va., and surrounding Loudoun County and the eastern-Virginia federal district where Brinkema is a judge, but it nevertheless has sparked national interest and, according to one county library director in Ohio hit by controversy over Internet access, “gives us a good referral point.” The county has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.
Assessing the Internet issue in public libraries, The New York Times wrote Nov. 25, “because public libraries provide free access to the Internet to those who may not have any other means of using it, they have been seen as a crucial site of the struggle over how the medium will be regulated. In the absence of any precedent, librarians and patrons have cobbled together various compromises in an effort to strike a balance between providing access to the vast array of information on the Internet and protecting children from portions of it that may be harmful.”
Brinkema’s ruling was met with dismay by pro-family groups.
“With the stroke of a pen, she has declared a new constitutional right to taxpayer-supported pornography, even to children,” said Robert H. Knight, director of cultural studies with the Family Research Council in Washington.
Knight, in a Nov. 24 statement, argued “there is no ‘right’ to force libraries to accommodate any and all materials. If there were, the shelves would be full of hard-core magazines and videos. Libraries have always had the right to select materials, but the ACLU and its allies are intent on taking that away.”
Knight also noted, “By striking down reasonable limits on Internet access at Loudoun County’s libraries, Judge Brinkema has essentially opened up library users and staff to sexual harassment via pornography. If children are exposed, apparently that, too, is just too bad. If Judge Brinkema thinks that protecting children from hard-core porn is not a ‘compelling government interest,’ it is hard to imagine what could be.”
Brinkema’s ruling “shows that some liberal federal judges will jettison reason, logic, common sense and morality in order to destroy even minimal standards of decency in local communities,” Knight said.
According to a 1998 survey by the American Library Association’s office for information technology policy, 1,679 public libraries, or 14.6 percent of the nation’s public libraries, use Internet filtering programs on some or all of their public Internet computer terminals, according to a pro-filtering organization, Filtering Facts.
The organization maintains an Internet site on filtering issues at www.filteringfacts.org.
In several reports, Judge Brinkema was noted as stating there are only “isolated incidents” in which porn surfers had posed problems in local libraries, but Filtering Facts founder David Burt, of Lake Oswego, Ore., said he has detailed more than 100 such incidents but was prevented from presenting his evidence because the judge made her ruling without holding a trial.
Dick Black, who authored the Loudoun County Internet policy when he was a library board member, explained the policy is more related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which deals with hostile work environments, than the First Amendment.
The county policy states pornographic material displayed on library Internet terminals “would transform the library environment from one of reading and scholarship to one which invites unwelcome sexual advances and sexual harassment.”
Black, currently a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, told Focus on the Family’s Citizen Issues Alert Dec. 2 that federal cases have demonstrated that a Playboy calendar in a workplace cubicle can create a hostile work environment.
Citizen Issues Alert, meanwhile, quoted ACLU senior staff attorney Chris Hansen as stating, “Any library opposing any material on the Internet will have to think very hard whether this is acceptable in light of [Brinkema’s] opinion.”
However, The New York Times reported, an Orlando library official stated the Loudoun County decision will not prompt the removal of their Internet filters. “We have exercised our role as librarians to choose the material for our selection,” Dorothy Field, director of the Orange County library system, told The Times. “What happens in Loudoun County is not going to change anything here.”
In another Internet case, a federal judge in Philadelphia granted a temporary restraining order that prevented the Child Online Protection Act from taking effect Nov. 19. The law, which seeks to curb access by minors to pornography on the Internet, was passed by Congress earlier this year but promptly challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union in a coalition with 16 other organizations. Federal Judge Lowell Reed emphasized, however, “This is not a final decision, nor should it be construed as a final decision.”
The act allows prison terms of up to six months and fines of up to $50,000 per offense for commercial Internet site operations who make various types of graphic sexual material available to those under age 17.