ALEXANDRIA, VA -- A federal district judge Nov. 23 said that forcing adults to use blocking software in public libraries "offends the guarantee of free speech," and permanently blocked government officials in Loudoun County, Virginia from unconstitutionally restricting online access.
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the ruling, which marks the first time in America's legal history that a court has applied First Amendment principles to Internet access at public libraries. The ACLU, along with its Virginia state affiliate, had entered the case as intervenors on behalf of a diverse group of eight Internet speakers seeking to reach library patrons in the county.
In a 46-page decision issued this afternoon, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia soundly rejected the notion that access to the Internet "should really be construed as a library acquisition decision, to which the First Amendment does not apply, rather than a decision to remove library materials."
"The court clearly agreed that mandatory filtering blocks adult library patrons from accessing important online speech on issues ranging from safer sex to fine art to popular news columns," said Ann Beeson, an ACLU staff attorney who argued the case before the court.
"At the same time," she added, "the judge -- herself a former librarian -- cited the experience of other Virginia librarians in suggesting that Loudoun county could use a variety of less restrictive means to keep children from accessing inappropriate material online."
"Such strategies," she added, "could include placing privacy screens around terminals, establishing Internet use policies, and allowing optional filtering on terminals used by children. These are all strategies that the ACLU has recommended as alternatives to the unconstitutional use of mandatory blocking software." Among the key highlights in today's ruling:
"Now that the judge has entered a final ruling, our hope is that Loudoun County will not pursue this any further," said Chris Hansen, an ACLU Senior Staff Attorney and member of the legal team.
"Nobody wants to spend their time in court fighting libraries," he added. "Let's allow the librarians get on with the business of providing information to the public rather than spending taxpayer money on further litigation."
The ACLU's plaintiffs are The Safer Sex Page, operated by Chris Filkins; Banned Books Online, created by John Ockerbloom; American Association of University Women Maryland (AAUW Maryland); Rob Morse, an award-winning columnist for the San Francisco Examiner; Books for Gay and Lesbian Teens Youth Page, created by 18-year-old Jeremy Myers; Sergio Arau, the popular Mexican artist and rock singer known as "El Padrino"; Renaissance Transgender Association, a group serving the transgendered community; and The Ethical Spectacle, created by author Jonathan Wallace.
In court papers, the ACLU had argued that X-Stop, the blocking software installed by the library, had at one time or another blocked all of their clients. In response, the library had argued that it generally unblocked websites when notified.
But, as the court's opinion noted, "the degree to which the Policy is completely lacking in standards is demonstrated by the defendant's willingness to entrust all preliminary blocking decisions -- and by default, the overwhelming majority of final decisions -- to a private vendor." The government, the judge said, "cannot avoid its constitutional obligation by contracting out its decision-making to a private entity."
"Every member of every library board considering an Internet-blocking policy ought to read the judge's ruling," said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. "It will remind them of why we have libraries and why an unfettered Internet serves the fundamental purpose of libraries better than any invention since the printing press."
Representing the ACLU's clients are national ACLU lawyers Ann Beeson, Chris Hansen, Marjorie Heins and J.C. Salyer, and Mary Bauer, former Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia.
Complete information on the case, including highlights of today's decision, the ACLU's complaint, links to plaintiffs' web pages, and related cyber-law cases, can be found on the ACLU Freedom Network at http://www.aclu.org/issues/cyber/hmcl.html.