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When it comes to kids using the Internet on public library computers, local governments are in a tough spot. Case in point: After librarians in Loudon County, Va., installed filtering software to prevent kids from viewing pornography online in 1997, a number of civil liberties groups sued to end the practice, and won. The next year, when a public library in Livermore, Calif., followed that case’s lead and refused to install filters, an angry local resident — whose preteen son had downloaded pornography on library computers — filed suit against the city. Her suit, which is now on appeal, calls attention to how deeply divided people are over the issue of software filters in public libraries, and some feel more lawsuits are inevitable. “If they restrict access, they get sued, and if they don’t, they get sued — what’s a library to do?” wondered an appeals court judge during a hearing for the Livermore case last week. “It’s basically a ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ situation.” The case arose in 1998 after the mother learned that her then-12-year-old son had downloaded pornographic pictures to a CD-ROM diskette during 10 separate visits to the Livermore Public Library, located east of San Francisco. After the library declined her request to install filters, she filed suit anonymously, becoming the first in the U.S. to contest a library’s refusal to protect children from Net porn. A Superior Court judge dismissed the case in January 1999, ruling that the Communications Decency Act exempts public libraries from liability in cases of this kind. Attorneys at the conservative Pacific Justice Institute representing the plaintiff tried to convince a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeals in San Francisco to revive the lawsuit at last week’s hearing, arguing public libraries that allow access to hard-core pornography violate minors’ 14th Amendment right “to be free from severe psychological injury.” They also claim that using tax dollars to furnish children’s access to erotic content is a waste of public funds under state law. The judges have 90 days to rule on whether to revive the suit — which doesn’t seek damages, only a court order requiring parents to give informed consent before their children access the Net via public library computers. While the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which takes effect in April, requires porn-blocking software at local libraries that receive federal funds, the library in Livermore gets no federal money — and American Civil Liberties Union attorneys have said they intend to challenge the law in court anyway. “We’re in a lose-lose situation here,” says Livermore Assistant City Attorney Dan Sodergren. “If the court rules against us, we’ll have the fear of liability hanging over our library.” Those fears have prompted the ACLU, the California State Association of Counties and 48 individual cities to join Livermore in defending the suit. Attorney Michael Millen of the Pacific Justice Institute says his team is on a crusade to get software filters into public libraries — whether they’re federally funded or not. “Whether this case succeeds or not, the issue won’t go away,” he says. “There’s a critical mass of public concern that has awoken, and libraries are going to have to find ways to protect our kids.” Copyright � 2001 The Industry Standard

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