Library board won’t appeal court decision barring mandatory filtering

Thursday, April 22, 1999

The Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County (Va.) Library decided earlier this week not to appeal a federal court decision striking down its policy mandating Internet filters on all computers used by patrons.

Last November, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled in Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library that the policy requiring filters on all computers for all patrons — minors and adults — violated First Amendment free-speech rights.

The case drew national attention to the debate over filtering in public libraries. Filtering advocates argue that if libraries fail to provide some technological check on the Internet, children and others will be exposed to and harmed by pornography. However, many free-speech advocates contend that mandatory filtering will infringe on the First Amendment rights of adults and older minors.

The board said it had originally adopted the policy to protect minors from online pornography and to prevent sexually hostile environments in libraries.

After Brinkema struck down the policy, the library system adopted a new approach to filtering. Under what the director of library services calls a “parent's choice” policy, all computers are set on a no-filter default, which parents can override by selecting the filtering option for themselves and their children

The board had voted to keep the possibility of appealing the decision open until the question of attorney fees was resolved.

Attorneys for Mainstream Loudoun and the American Civil Liberties Union, the groups which successfully challenged the policy on First Amendment grounds, requested nearly $500,000 in legal fees from the county.

However, earlier this month Brinkema awarded approximately $107,000 in attorney fees to the plaintiffs, nearly $70,000 to Mainstream Loudoun and $37,000 to the ACLU.

The board voted 7-2 to not appeal, provided that Mainstream Loudoun and the American Civil Liberties Union do not appeal the judge's ruling on attorney fees.

Board member Marc Leepson, who voted not to appeal, says that the new policy is better than the old policy requiring filters. “No governmental body has the right to tell adults what they can read or say unless the material advocates and leads to violence against the government,” he said.

“This is a blatantly unconstitutional policy that was foisted upon the county and the library board by people with an ultra right-wing political agenda,” he said.

“This issue is not something that library users of this county are concerned about,” Leepson said. “There are more complaints about the temperature in libraries than about the Internet.”

Board members Ken Welch and Chris Howlett opposed the motion to discontinue the appeal. “The library board of trustees snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory,” Welch said.

“This was a very winnable case,” Welch said. “I firmly believe that the 4th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court would have ruled in favor of the old library policy regarding filtering.”

Welch pointed to the fact that Brinkema, who issued the ruling striking down the old policy, was reversed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in another Internet speech case, Urofsky v. Allen.

Welch questions the wisdom of the new policy, saying that it will lead to more problems in libraries.

“I hope that the new policy will lead to sexual harassment suits in libraries to force the issue again,” he said. “The new policy is going to lead to offensive behavior in libraries that will negatively impact librarians.”