Plano wades into the thicket of Internet access, porn, and the First Amendment

And they do need help, though not necessarily from DAD. Like most of us, council members are struggling with the unfamiliar and ever-expanding jargon and technology pertaining to Internet sites, search engines, and filtering software.

The fact that the technology is still young isn't just a worry for council members and parents who feel left behind. It also means it still has flaws. Older filters were word-based--they blocked sites containing certain pre-selected combinations of letters. So, for example, if someone searched for "Mars exploration" or "chicken breast" recipes, the filter might pick up the letters s-e-x and b-r-e-a-s-t and block the sites. More recently developed software blocks only sites considered undesirable by the company producing the filter. They offer no difficulties to users looking for information on Mars, but instead of enforcing the much-touted community standards, they enforce standards determined by the corporations producing the filters, says Diana Philip, regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU has been following the battle in Plano closely. They have a national policy against filtering, and when confronted with similar cases, the organization has taken the issue to court.

Most local libraries have steered away from filtering.
"Well, we have not had any complaints, and it is a First Amendment issue with libraries in general," says Joe Bearden, assistant director of Dallas public libraries. "We treat the Internet as any other information resource, and we do not believe in censoring."

Coppell's city council, on the other hand, decided to adopt a filtering device even before their library started offering Internet access through its five computers in October 1997. Its Library Advisory Board--like Plano's--was against the decision, says Judi Biggerstaff, library manager of William T. Cozby Public Library. But that's no problem. They have a new advisory board now, and it "is happy with our filtering product," she says.

While there is a concern about legal action in the future, "that depends on how policy is developed," says Diane Wetherbee, Plano city attorney. "I think there are ways to do it legally, and ways that raise concerns."

Yet when the ACLU faced filtering in courts in the past, they found that judges agree with their vision of an Internet unfettered by blocking software.

While access to pornography is not considered part of the First Amendment guarantees, the filtering software currently available is less than perfect, allowing some obscene material through while blocking sites considered perfectly admissible.

A Loudon County, Virginia, case in which the ACLU intervened is an example of what can happen. In order to enforce library policy and prevent access to sites considered obscene, pornographic, or otherwise harmful to children, the local library had installed X-Stop, a commercial site-blocking program. When some users found that sites such as the The Safer Sex Page, Banned Books Online, Books for Gay and Lesbian Teens Youth Page, and others that did not violate the library's policy were blocked, they sued, alleging the filtering had infringed upon their First Amendment rights.

A judge, who coincidentally was a former librarian, ruled last November that forcing adults to use filtering software in public libraries "offends the guarantees of free speech" and forbade government officials in Loudon County from unconstitutionally restricting Internet access. While the ruling applies only to Virginia, the case is being closely watched nationwide. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Reno vs. ACLU that the Internet is a free-speech zone deserving the highest protection from governmental intrusion, but the Virginia case was the first in which a court applied First Amendment principles to Internet access at a public library.

"When a public library decides to provide Internet access, it is in effect buying the entire content of the Internet. Determining what portions of that purchase to make available to patrons amounts to censorship," Philip says. The Virginia library allowed users to ask librarians to unblock the restricted sites, but that violates individual privacy, she says.

"Can you imagine living in a small town and having to explain to the librarian why you want to access a breast cancer site, or one dealing with gay and lesbian issues?" Philip asks. Also, she adds, "by adopting clumsy filtering software we are taking responsibility away from parents and libraries and giving it to the government and private corporations."

Whether Plano will add itself to the relatively small number of public libraries offering filtered Internet access--15 percent nationwide, according to the American Library Association, which also opposes filtering--remains to be seen. The council members appointed to investigate the city's options are still investigating, though Bode says they are "looking at a system that will include some type of filtering.

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