Mother sues city over library’s lack of Internet filtering software

Tuesday, June 2, 1998

A California city was sued last week by the mother of a 12-year-old for failing to provide Internet blocking software on public library computer terminals.

The lawsuit, Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, claims that the boy, identified only as Brandon P., downloaded obscene pornographic pictures from a computer terminal at the public library in Livermore in June 1997.

The lawsuit alleges that “The City of Livermore has been made aware that minors and others can and have used their computers with web access to view and download sexually explicit images and sexually obscene images. In spite of this, the City of Livermore continues to allow minors to use these computers.”

The lawsuit, filed by an affiliate attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, claims that “allowing minors to use the computers to access, acquire, display and/or print sexual and other material harmful to minors is a public nuisance.”

Michael Millen, Kathleen R.'s attorney, wrote a letter dated March 31 warning the city attorney that if the library did not take some action to prevent minors from accessing pornography, he would file a lawsuit.

However, in a reply letter, city attorney Thomas Curry wrote: “The Board of Trustees of the Livermore Public Library recognizes that 'freedom of speech and expression are central to the successful maintenance of a free society.' … The Board of Trustees 'supports the idea that all members of the community have free and equal access to the entire range of library resources, regardless of content, approach, format or amount of detail. These rights extend to all users of the public library including minors.'”

Millen said: “We contend there is no First Amendment controversy here, because children do not have a constitutional right to view obscene pornography.

“If you or I gave this stuff to a child, we would go to jail. But if a library allows children unfettered access to the Internet, allowing them to access this harmful material, the library gets praised,” Millen said. “This is totally crazy and anomalous to the way the law should be.”

Millen said there at least two possible solutions to the problem. “One would be to designate terminals in the library for adult and children users. Then, the library could equip the child terminals with filtering software and leave the adult terminals alone, but require parental permission before a minor could use the Internet on an adult terminal,” he said.

The other solution offered by Millen, which he said he finds less attractive, would be that “children can't use the Internet at all without parental permission.”

Jim Schmidt, university librarian and a professor at San Jose State University, said: “The use of the public-nuisance concept is a novel way to require libraries to install filtering software.”

Schmidt said that the lawsuit raises another interesting issue: whether public libraries, which are publicly-funded entities, can delegate to private software companies the job of regulating content.