Michigan ACLU will likely challenge library’s Internet filtering policy

Friday, August 13, 1999

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan will likely file a lawsuit challenging the Georgetown Charter Township public library's policy that mandates Internet filtering on all computers for all patrons.

“No official decision has been made yet,” Michael Steinberg, legal director for the Michigan ACLU, said. “But it is likely that a lawsuit will be filed soon. We are actively reviewing the case. We are in the process of locating plaintiffs, and we have received complaints about the policies.”

Georgetown Township officials came under fire recently after township supervisor Henry Hilbrand instituted a $100-per-hour fee for library patrons who wanted to surf the Internet without any blocking software on the terminal.

Town officials believed that recent amendments to the Michigan Library Privacy Act regarding filtering required them to have at least one computer terminal free of blocking software.

The law, which took effect Aug. 1, provides that if a library elects to install filtering software on its computers to protect children from harmful material on the Internet, it can do so in one of two ways:

  • “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.”
  • “By reserving, to individuals 18 years of age or older or minors who are accompanied by their parent or guardian, 1 or more terminals that are not restricted from receiving any material.”

Town officials rescinded the $100-per-hour user fee after town attorneys told them it was likely unconstitutional. “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,” the attorneys wrote in a letter dated Aug. 4.

However, town attorneys also said that “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.”

The town attorneys said that the provisions of the new law were “subject to varying interpretations.”

However, Steinberg said that the clear intent of the Legislature in passing this law was to allow libraries to filter to protect children, but also to provide at least one terminal for adult patrons that is not filtered.

Steinberg says that the current policy is worse than the $100-per-hour policy because now no library patrons will have unfiltered Internet access.

“This policy of mandating filters for all patrons infringes on adult free-speech rights,” he said. He noted that a federal court in Virginia has already struck down a similar policy.

In Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema wrote in November 1998 that the policy “offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment.”