Library pulls plug on $100-per-hour fee for unrestricted Net surfing

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Less than a week after imposing a $100-per-hour fee on unrestricted Internet access to public library computers, a Michigan town has dropped the fee.

The Georgetown Township Public Library has instead returned to its prior policy of filtering the Net on all of its computers.

In February, the township board voted to install filtering software on library computers in order to bar access to harmful materials on the Internet.

However, library and town officials feared that a new Michigan law required them to provide at least one unfiltered computer terminal. One provision of that law says that if a library offers Internet access, the library governing body “may require that the library restrict access to minors by … making available, to individuals of any age, 1 or more terminals that are restricted from receiving obscene matter or sexually explicit matter that is harmful to minors.”

On July 29 Georgetown Township Supervisor Henry Hilbrand decided to institute the fee in order to protect children from material they might find on an unfiltered terminal. “I introduced the fee as an interim policy without board approval because I wanted to prohibit children from seeing undesirable material,” he said. “I have the ability to introduce interim procedures and policies to comply with the law.”

However, on the afternoon of Aug. 4, Hilbrand decided to drop the fee on advice of legal counsel. “Our legal counsel advised us it was not the right thing to do,” he explained.

In an Aug. 4 letter to Hilbrand, attorneys Peter Titta and Daniel Elve wrote:

“It is our opinion that it is not necessary to reserve one computer terminal for unrestricted access at the township library, thereby eliminating the $100 per hour fee. We recommend the prompt removal of this user fee since it is likely that a court would hold it a violation of the state statutes requiring reasonable user fees and the United States Constitution.”

Later in the letter, the attorneys reiterated that “it is also our recommendation that the Township eliminate the $100 per hour user fee.”

Cheryl Vanderwagen, director of the Georgetown Charter Township Public Library, confirmed that “the fee has been rescinded.”

Vanderwagen noted that no one had paid the $100 fee. “We did not think anyone would,” she said.

“The fee was not as ridiculous as it sounds or as ridiculous as the media made it out to be,” Hilbrand said. “People are often charged fees for use of public property. For instance, people are charged a fee to use the park pavilion.

“Our goal was to protect children,” he said. “I guess we may have gone beyond our goal with the fee.”

The question that now looms in the library's future is whether the filtering of all its computers will be challenged as an infringement on adult free-speech rights. In November 1998, a federal judge in Virginia struck down a policy that mandated filters on all computers for all patrons at a public library in Loudoun County.

In the letter sent to Hilbrand, Titta and Elve wrote that some courts “hold that any limit by the government on Internet access is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech.”

According to the attorneys, some of these rulings by other courts “may encourage an attack on the Michigan law locally in federal court.”