Virginia Parents Ask Court to Stop Loudoun County Library’s Internet Censorship
New evidence shows Internet filter blocked Kentucky State tax forms, Yale Graduate Biology Program, even Beanie Babies web sites
Parents and other concerned citizens from Loudoun County, Virginia, citing broad abuses of library users’ rights, today is filing a legal motion asking the U.S. District Court in Alexandria to order the Loudoun County Library Board to abandon its Internet censorship policy.
The Loudoun residents and their lawyers from People For the American Way Foundation and the Washington, D.C. law firm of Hogan and Hartson L.L.P. argue that the library’s policy so blatantly violates the First Amendment that it should be immediately struck down as unconstitutional without a trial
In the motion for summary judgment being filed today, plaintiffs in the case, Mainstream Loudoun et al. v Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, cited new evidence uncovered during the discovery process showing that the censorship policy is riding roughshod over the rights of Loudoun County library patrons. The Library Board’s requirement of filtering software on all computers for all patrons denies access to a vast array of completely constitutionally protected information on the Internet. Among the sites known to have been blocked are the American Association of University Women (www.aauw.org), the Yale Graduate Biology Program (www.biology.yale.edu/graduateprogram.html), a Beanie Babies web page (www.a-romantic.com/beanie/), and tax forms for the State of Kentucky (www.state.ky.us/agencies/revenue/revhome.htm).
“Loudoun County’s Library Board tried to be the thought police, but they turned themselves into the Keystone Kops instead,” said Carole Shields, President of People For the American Way Foundation. “As ludicrous as it is that Loudoun County is protecting its residents from the Beanie Babies website, this fiasco brings home a serious point: In a free society, government has no business choosing what citizens can think, say, read, or see on the Internet.”
Last October, the Loudoun County Library Board adopted a policy requiring filtering software to be installed in all library computers at all times for all library users. The Board also ordered the computers to be placed in full view of library staff and authorized staff to expel anyone caught trying to access prohibited material. The library subsequently contracted with Log-On Data Corp., which manufactures filtering software known as X-Stop. In published reports and tests of the software, X-Stop has been found to block access to numerous sites containing mainstream, valuable, constitutionally protected information.
In the library’s own test of the X-Stop software, they found that 67% of the web sites that were blocked contained no material that should have been blocked under their own policy.
Last December Mainstream Loudoun, a group formed by County residents in part to combat the library board’s attempts to censor other materials over the past several years, sued the board to end the Internet censorship policy. Several individual residents of the county joined with Mainstream Loudoun in bringing the lawsuit, one of the first in the nation to challenge a library’s attempt to impose mandatory Internet blocking. Since then, U.S. District judge Leonie Brinkema denied the library board’s motion to dismiss the case and found that the highest First Amendment standards apply to content-based decisions to exclude Internet materials in public libraries.
Today’s motion argues that the Loudoun County Internet censorship policy violates county citizens’ constitutional rights in several ways. It imposes prior restraint on Internet information, reduces adult access to information to less than what is fit for children, imposes broad and vague restrictions on speech, vests library staff with unbridled discretion to enforce the policy, and fails to serve a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means.
Loudoun County’s blunderbuss Internet censorship policy is so broad and so abusive of First Amendment rights that even the librarians who are responsible for enforcing the policy have no idea what materials may be blocked or why.
“Unlike Justice Potter Stewart, who said he could not intelligibly define obscenity but that ‘I know it when I see it,’ the Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Public Library claims it knows what is obscene without even having to look at it,” the motion states.
People For the American Way Foundation is a 300,000-member organization dedicated to defending civil rights; promoting the democratic values of religious freedom, free speech and respect for diversity; and developing a culture of opportunity and tolerance for individual difference. PFAW served as co-counsel and co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and has advised governmental entities throughout the U.S. on Internet guidelines.