U.S. Court: Library can't require porn filter

A US has ruled that a Virginia county library cannot require adults to use Internet blocking software on library computers, agreeing with library patrons who sued against the Loudoun County Library trustees' installation of blocking software on library computers. The ruling marks the first time that a US court has applied First Amendment principles to Internet access at public libraries and is expected to have a nationwide impact.

A US District Court has ruled that a Virginia county library cannot require adults to use Internet blocking software on library computers.

In Mainstream Loudoun versus Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, Judge Leonie Brinkema of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sided with library patrons who sued as Mainstream Loudoun against the Loudoun County Library trustees' installation of blocking software on library computers. The ruling marks the first time that a US court has applied First Amendment principles to Internet access at public libraries, according to Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia.

The Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County library tried to use the software to enforce their policy of prohibiting the use of the Internet to access child pornography, obscenity or any item harmful to juveniles, but the software extended that policy to adults, Willis said.

Under US law, material deemed obscene is illegal, but access to material deemed indecent is protected by the First Amendment, though restrictions and limitations for minors are permitted. However, the limitations must be as least restrictive as is necessary to achieve their ends. Defendants must show that they have a compelling interest in restricting speech and must do it in the least restrictive means possible, and the judge ruled that the library trustees failed on both counts, Willis said.

The decision will have an impact far beyond the Eastern District of Virginia, according to Willis. Judges look to other decisions that help them make their rulings, and while other federal district judges are not required to follow Brinkema's decision, they are likely to defer to it, he said.

"This decision will have a broad impact across the nation as libraries pass policies and other courts need to determine whether those policies are constitutional or not, " Willis said.

The Board of Trustees of the library could appeal the decision, but Willis had some indication that they would not. Since the case was filed early this year, new board members have been elected, and "the new group has indicated that they are not in favor of this policy," Willis said. "That's the information that comes out of Loudoun County."

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