Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lawsuit challenges filtered Internet access at libraries

Sarah Bradburn admits she’s not that Internet savvy. Still, she thought it strange when she couldn’t find information about teenage smoking on the computer at her public library in Republic, Wash.

“I thought, ‘that’s odd,’ said Bradburn, who in winter 2004 was trying to do research at her hometown library while studying chemical dependency counseling at Eastern Washington University. “I went to the Spokane municipal library and got a ton of information.”

Today, Bradburn is one of four parties to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has brought in U.S. District Court in Spokane against the North Central Regional Library District.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, the district will not turn off its Internet filters when asked by adults who wish to access constitutionally protected information on its computers. The district has 28 libraries in Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan counties.

At the heart of the federal case is the right to unfettered access to legal materials on the Internet in rural areas, where broadband connections are generally fewer and farther between than in urban and suburban America.

On the other hand, libraries must have filtering software to be in compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), said the library district’s Seattle attorney, Thomas Adams.

If some of the plaintiffs wanted access to filtered information, he said, “Why didn’t they just ask?”

They shouldn’t have to, said ACLU of Washington communication director Doug Honig.

“If an adult wishes to look at the Internet without a library’s filters on, the adult ought to be able to do so without asking a librarian,” Honig said.

Adams said the district’s libraries have a well-thought-out policy for Internet access in compliance with CIPA and reflecting the standards and desires of the communities they serve.

“We feel like we’re doing everything the law requires,” said Adams, who maintains that the filters at the district’s libraries are not at all burdensome.

By the time the ACLU filed suit in November 2006, the district had replaced its old filtering software with a new, less restrictive system, he said.

Bradburn said she can now access the information on teen smoking she couldn’t access in 2004. Adams acknowledges, however, that is not the case for all parties for whom the ACLU filed suit.

The other plaintiffs are Pearl Cherrington, of Twisp, Wash., a professional photographer who was blocked from researching art galleries and health sites, and Charles Heinlen, of Okanogan, Wash., a blogger who was blocked from accessing information about gun use by hunters and other social activities in the Internet, according to court documents.

The fourth plaintiff is the Second Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates the right to possess firearms. The foundation said the library district is blocking access to its Internet magazine, Women & Guns.

“The problem is with the policy,” Honig said, even if the district has a better filtering system.

“There is a wide variety of information on the Internet, and adults should be able to access whatever material they want to see as long as it is legal material,” Honig said.

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