The following is a press release written by the American Civil
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ACLU Enters VA Library Internet Lawsuit
On Behalf of Online Speakers
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, February 6, 1998
NEW YORK -- In a cyber-law first, the American Civil Liberties Union today asked a
federal court in Virginia to rule that the government cannot prevent Internet speakers
from communicating with interested library patrons.
Acting on behalf of a diverse group of eight plaintiffs, the national ACLU and the ACLU
of Virginia are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit over the use of Internet filters in
Loudoun County libraries.
The ACLU said it is intervening in the suit to ensure that
speakers outside of the county -- and even outside the United States -- are able to reach
their intended worldwide audience, including library patrons in Loudoun County, Virginia.
"This case presents important questions about whether the government can prevent
Internet speakers from communicating constitutionally protected information online to
people whose only access to the Internet may be their local public library," said Ann
Beeson, ACLU National Staff Attorney.
The library's Internet policy purports to block access to materials that are
"pornographic" or "harmful to juveniles." But the ACLU's complaint
charges that by using blocking software to implement the policy, the library board is in
fact "removing books from the shelves" of the Internet with value to both adults
and minors in violation of the Constitution.
The eight plaintiffs are:
In a column
for The San Francisco Examiner, Rob Morse wrote, "All the news that's fit to print in
San Francisco is banned in Loudoun County." As noted in the ACLU's complaint, the
filtering program X-Stop -- which is being used in Loudon County libraries -- blocks
Morse's columns from the Examiner's website at www.examiner.com.
"This may be the first time that major newspapers have been banned from
libraries," Morse speculated. "If Supreme Court justices can't define
pornography, how can some programmers in Anaheim do it? The answer is they can't without
banning family newspapers in San Francisco."
Ultimately, the library controversy may lead back to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in
Reno v. ACLU, striking
down a federal Internet censorship law that sought to restrict access to online speech. In
its sweeping decision, issued in
June 1997, the Court confirmed that the Internet is analogous to books, not broadcast, and
is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection. The ACLU was a lead plaintiff and
litigator in the suit.
The ACLU also won a victory in a
recent library blocking software controversy that was resolved without litigation. On
January 27, officials in Kern County, California agreed to allow all library patrons to
decide for themselves whether to use blocking software, after the ACLU warned that
mandatory blocking was unconstitutional.
Plaintiff Jonathan Wallace, creator of an online magazine, said that he is all too
familiar with the X-Stop software -- which he dubs "censorware" -- in use at
Loudoun County. He is the author of several articles critical of blocking software,
"Censorware products on the market today block socially valuable speech like The Ethical Spectacle," Wallace said. "The
products can't discriminate between illegal speech, like obscenity, and controversial but
useful speech about censorship, pornography and the First Amendment."
Another plaintiff, scientist Jonathan Troyer, said that teenagers are an important
audience for his Safer Sex Page, which is accessed
by more than 20,000 people a week worldwide.
"I get letters from around the world, some from people as young as 12 or 13,
asking questions they can't ask anyone else. This information is lifesaving and vital, and
it's a shame when it gets lumped in with pornography," he said. "Nothing on the
site is more explicit than books that are already found in the library. Knowledge
shouldn't be treated any differently just because it is on the Internet."
In objecting to the block on their clients' speech, the ACLU's complaint noted that
websites offering opposing views are not blocked. "For example, Defendants do not
block sites opposing homosexuality and transgender behavior, opposing employment by women
outside the home, favoring Internet censorship, and promoting abstinence rather than safer
"A library by definition is a place where people have access to all types of
information, from photos to essays," said Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU
of Virginia. "Restricting the use of this valuable research tool erodes the whole
notion of what a library is supposed to be."
The ACLU will present its arguments on the motion to intervene before a federal
district judge in Alexandria, VA, on February 20. The court is also scheduled to hear
defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint on the same day. The ACLU's motion
and complaint were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Representing the clients are national ACLU lawyers Ann Beeson, Chris Hansen and
Marjorie Heins, and Mary Bauer, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia.
Complete information on the intervention, including 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.