In a case with broad implications for internet access in schools, a federal judge has rejected efforts by a Virginia county to block pornography on computers in its public libraries, declaring the attempts unconstitutional. The ruling marks the first time a federal court has applied First Amendment principles to internet access at a public institution.
In a 46-page decision, District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled Nov. 23 that Loudoun County’s libraries violated free expression rights by screening access to internet sites on all public-use computers. In her ruling, the judge rejected the county’s claim that internet access “should be construed as a library acquisition decision, to which the First Amendment does not apply, rather than a decision to remove library materials.”
The county, just west of Washington, D.C., had installed Log-On Data Corp.’s X-Stop filtering software to block access to internet sites that contain certain words or phrases. Loudoun’s intent was to keep children from accessing sexually explicit sites on the world wide web.
But some adults were upset that the software denied them access to sites providing information on topics such as breast cancer or AIDS.
“Although the defendant is under no obligation to provide internet access to its patrons, it has chosen to do so and is therefore restricted by the First Amendment in the limitations it is allowed to place on patron access,” Brinkema wrote in her decision.
The county’s library system violated the First Amendment because its filters (1) were not necessary “to further any compelling government interest,” (2) were too broadly applied, (3) restricted the access of adults to material deemed unfit for minors, and (4) did not have adequate standards for restricting access, the ruling said.
The judge cited alternatives, including using different terminals for children and adults or having a terminal with a switch allowing the filter to be easily turned off, for use by an adult.
The library system was sued in December 1997 by residents who claimed that using the software was a form of government censorship. The American Civil Liberties Union intervened last February on behalf of several sites that were blocked by the libraries’ filters.
“Any library censoring any material on the internet will have to think very hard whether this is acceptable in light of this opinion,” said Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the ACLU.
Room to maneuver?
But Ken Bass, an attorney for the library, said the judge left some room for libraries that want to restrict internet access for children. “What she found unconstitutional was primarily that it used the same standard for adults as for children,” he said.
It is this point which has legal experts debating how such a lawsuit would play out if filed against a public school system.
David Splitt, ethics and law columnist for eSchool News, said the decision probably won’t have a direct effect on elementary or middle schools that use filters–but it might in high schools, where students are often a mix of adults and minors.
“If the board’s objective had been to protect children, rather than foist its own moral agenda on adults, it could have created a policy limiting filters to computers being used only by children,” Splitt said. “Based on this decision, the best approach to filtering in a public school is to have different policies applicable to adults and minors.”
Loudoun County library attorney Bass said he would ask for a 15-day stay of the ruling to give library trustees time to decide whether to turn off the computers or the filter.
Loudoun County Public Libraries
American Civil Liberties Union