In the latest twist in a case already laden with implications for school internet access, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Feb. 9 entered a hotly disputed case involving the library board in Loudoun County, Va. On Dec. 22, 1997, some residents in the conservative community near Washington, D.C., filed suit against the library board’s policy governing internet access, one of the most restrictive in the nation.
Now, the ACLU has weighed in on behalf of web publishers to uphold their interests in the free distribution of ideas.
The flap started last fall. All computers in the county’s public libraries have been equipped with the controversial X-Stop filtering software since Nov. 24, 1997 a practice that violates the First Amendment rights of library users, according to the suit.
The lawsuit is the first of its kind filed against a library or school challenging its internet policy.
Loudoun County is by no means alone in restricting internet use. Increasingly, schools and libraries are turning to filtering software to assuage parents’ fears about the nature of materials their children have access to on the web.
But Loudoun’s policy, drafted by board member Richard H. Black, is among the most restrictive in the country, according to Ann Symons, president-elect of the American Library Association.
In Loudoun libraries, filters are installed on all computers, all the time, and cannot be circumvented, even by library personnel. In addition, children under 18 must receive a parent’s permission before they can use the internet.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria by 11 Loudoun library users and 70 members of Mainstream Loudoun, a local civil liberties group. The library system’s director, Douglas Henderson, and the five board members who voted for the policy are the defendants in the suit.
“The library board in Loudoun County is deciding what everyone can see, and that’s where you cross the line into censorship, and it’s illegal,” said Lawrence Ottinger, an attorney for People for the American Way. The national civil liberties group is providing legal assistance for the plaintiffs.
But library board member Mary Ellen VanNederynen, one of those named in the suit, claims the ban on sexually explicit material is legal and is supported overwhelmingly by county residents. “We did what we could to make sure it was legal,” she said.
“We listened to the public, and over two-thirds of the public said, ‘It’s our money; it’s our budget’ and we gave them what they wanted: a safe place for their kids.”
“The internet is a totally new thing,” she added. “We knew we were going to run into trouble one way or another.”
Mainstream Loudoun members claim the policy is unnecessarily restrictive because it treats children and adults alike. “The key thing is that we’re not necessarily opposed to filters. But if you have filters, adults should have the option of turning them off,” said Jeri McGiverin, who heads Mainstream Loudoun.
The group advocates an alternative policy in which parents would have to approve their children’s use of unfiltered terminals. Such a compromise would protect children while allowing adults to decide what is or is not appropriate for themselves.
At least one Loudoun library board member agrees. “I’m a conservative, but Black’s so far right, he fell off the right,” said fellow member George F. Hidy Jr., who voted against the Loudoun policy. “I have a hard time taking people’s rights away . . . I don’t think we should be in the business of telling parents how to raise their kids.”
Ironically, public schools in Loudoun do not use filters. Instead, students sign a form agreeing not to abuse the system, and their internet use is monitored by teachers and other staff. McGiverin, a former high school English teacher, believes this is a responsible approach.
“I personally believe we must teach our young people how to deal with the internet in a responsible fashion, and that at some point, trust must come into play,” McGiverin said.
X-Stop is manufactured by the Anaheim, Calif.-based Log On Data Corporation. Log On engineers, not company lawyers, decide which web sites the software should block. The engineers base their decision on the U.S. Supreme Court’s three-point rule for obscenity: it appeals to prurient interests, has no literary or political value, and violates the community’s standard for obscenity.
X-Stop has come under recent attack for announcing an alliance with the American Family Association (AFA). The AFA is a conservative Christian group best known for its attacks on Disney for what it calls the entertainment company’s “pro-homosexual” practices.
Mainstream Loudoun’s protest stems partly from the fact that X-Stop blocks legitimate material as well as pornography. Among the sites the filter blocks, but shouldn’t, the plaintiffs say, are the home page for the Quaker religion, the Heritage Foundation site, and the AIDS quilt site.
“We don’t want some software engineer in California deciding what we may or may not see on the net,” said Elaine Williamson, another Mainstream Loudoun member.
John Nicholas, chairman of the library board, counters that library patrons can have those blocks removed by submitting a form to the library staff. He argues that libraries area not obligated to offer access to the entire internet any more than they are obligated to stock every book and magazine in existence.
“We don’t say you can’t publish this stuff or access it somewhere else,” Nicholas said. “But we can sure as hell keep it out of our libraries.”
Yet another point of contention for the plaintiffs is Loudoun’s policy requirement that internet terminals be placed in full view of the library staff. Librarians are encouraged to watch patrons use the internet to make sure the X-Stop software is working and to report any additional sites that should be blocked. The lawsuit contends this violates users’ privacy.
One of the plaintiffs, Judy Coughlin, said she is recovering from breast cancer and has visited internet sites on library computers to learn more about her illness. The county’s policy now forces her to view images of reconstructed breasts while librarians are looking over her shoulder.
“I want the next 200 or 300 Loudoun women who find out they have breast cancer to have privacy while they research a difficult and sensitive subject,” Coughlin said.
The outcome in Loudoun could affect libraries elsewhere. “We certainly think that the resolution of what’s going on here will set a precedent for what’s going on in libraries across the country,” said Ottinger.
Loudoun County Public Libraries
People for the American Way