In a lawsuit educators will watch closely, a mother has sued a municipal library because it failed to stop her 12-year-old son from using a library computer to download sexually explicit images from the internet.

Ten times last summer, the boy reportedly downloaded dozens of explicit images onto floppy disks. He then used a relative’s computer equipment to print the images, which he allegedly distributed to his friends at school.

Failing to filter

When the boy’s mother, identified only as Katherine R. of Concord, Calif., learned of the pictures, she hired attorney Michael Millen to file suit. Attorneys for the city of Livermore say it’s the first time a library has been sued for failing to install internet filtering software.

Millen first filed suit during the summer, saying the city wasted public funds and created what is described in legal terms as an “attractive nuisance” by failing to restrict internet use.

In that case, Superior Court Judge George C. Hernandez Jr. agreed with the city’s argument that the library was protected under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

City lawyers had contended then that Congress intended to hold web site providers accountable for electronically published materials, but not third parties such as libraries and internet service firms.

Attorney Millen and his client revived the matter in November, adjusting their argument to address a government entity’s duty to protect children from harm.

Millen now argues that pornographic pictures are harmful to children and that libraries have a duty to protect children from being harmed by using library resources.

Cutting analogy

“It’s a violation of constitutional rights for the library to hold [itself] out as a safe place for children while it is, in fact, harming them,” he argues. “It’s the same as if the library had a razor blade display case and allowed children to handle blades and the kids got cut.

“It’s so outrageous that it rises to the level of constitutional deprivation,” Millen said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

According to municipal attorneys defending the library, this case marks the first time a library has been challenged in court for failing to install filtering software.

Livermore city attorney, Dan Sodergren, says a child’s use of the internet is a “parent’s responsibility.” Public libraries should not “censor,” Sodergren contends. The “library is not a baby-sitting service,” he told interviewers on television’s Today Show on Jan. 7. The “library is not a baby-sitting service,” he said. He also expressed the fear that a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Legal cross fire

When it comes to internet content filtering, libraries also have been sued when they do provide it. In Kern County, Calif., for example, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union recently challenged library officials for installing filtering software on internet terminals. After a review by lawyers in that county, the libraries added an unfiltered terminal at each of the system’s 26 branches.

For the filtered terminals, Kern County hired a private company to block sites containing materials considered inappropriate for minors under state law. The county now bars access to about 60,000 web sites.

Meanwhile, in Livermore, deputy city attorney Gabrielle Whelan says the Kern County solution is too sweeping. She argues that internet content filters block too much.

“For example, if you type in ‘breasts’ on a filtered terminal,” she said, “you can’t get any information at all about things such as breast cancer or other medical information. In that case, what good is the public library?”

David Splitt, ethics and law columnist for eSchool News, says the Livermore suite highlights a problem more pervasive even than disputes over internet content — resorting to lawsuits to resolve simple issues.

“This is another situation where parents and lawyers are trying to assess blame rather than solve a problem,” he said.

For educators, that problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Asked to assess potential future developments surrounding the Livermore lawsuit, the plaintiff’s attorney offered a prediction: “The schools will be next.””