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State and Local Restrictions

Even before enactment of the 2000 federal law, five states had passed their own statutes. Nearly 20 states had some form of legislation under consideration in 2001. Most of these laws are directed at libraries, some at schools, and at least one mandates that no filters be used at all in public libraries.

During the late 1990s, cities, counties, and library boards began enacting Internet usage policies that varied widely and often differed from community to community in the same state. Michigan demonstrates this variety. In Holland, Michigan, where the nation’s first ballot measure on library Internet filters was held in February 2000, residents of the 32,000-strong city voted 55 percent to 45 percent against the proposal, despite heavy spending by proponents such as the American Family Association in a controversial political battle that attracted national attention. Nearby Georgetown Township, which is slightly larger, installed filters. And then later in the year, the state enacted a law requiring filters, rendering local differences moot.

For the nation’s nearly 9,000 public libraries, the issue is still clearly unsettled. Some had already begun installing filters independently in the late 1990s, and the American Library Association estimated that as many as 25 percent had done so by 2001. However, most had resisted filtering. The ALA reported that many had adopted resolutions similar to its 1997 anti-filtering declaration, which holds that federally-mandated filtering is unconstitutional and violates the organization’s Library Bill of Rights. For thousands of libraries, the ALA’s pending litigation against the federal filtering law is closely watched and will ultimately shape future policies.

In two cases, filtering advocates have lost legal challenges. In 1998, in Mainstream Loudoun V. Board of Trustees of Loudoun County, a federal district court in Virginia ruled that a library violated the First Amendment by using filtering software. In 2001, a California federal appeals court upheld a ruling that rejected a parent’s lawsuit against a library where her 12-year-old son downloaded sexually-explicit photos on the library’s Internet connection. The court in Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore held that the city is not subject to suit for damages, nor could it be forced to censor the Internet usage of its library patrons.

Not all legal action on library filtering has focused upon the needs of library patrons. In a Minneapolis, Minnesota dispute that attracted national attention, twelve librarians filed sexual harassment claims based on unwanted exposure to patrons viewing pornography on the library’s Internet computers. They argued that such exposure subjected them to a so-called “hostile work environment,” one of the legal standards commonly pursued under sexual harassment law. In June 2001, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed with their complaint.

More broadly than public libraries, a majority of schools have adopted restrictive Internet policies. In 2000, a national survey by Quality Education Data Inc. found that more than 90 percent of teachers reported that schools had established acceptable use policies for Internet usage. Often these policies have involved installing software solutions, whether fitting each computer with off-the-shelf filters, blocking data at the school server level, or monitoring student Internet activity with so-called “sniffing” software that inspects their communication for behavior such as illegally downloading copyrighted music or seeking weapons information.

The following states and cities have enacted specific filtering legislation. However, other state and local laws may also apply to Internet usage on public computers. Concerned individuals can check with their school or library for a copy of its Internet usage policy.

ARIZONA: Public schools are required to filter Internet services to prevent minors from accessing harmful material, with each school district prescribing its own standards and rules. Public libraries must equip computers with Internet filters, implement policies, and follow statewide library rules. Schools and libraries in compliance with the law are protected from criminal liability and liability for damages.

KENTUCKY: Public schools are required to be filtered via so-called proxy software installed on Internet servers. However, schools and districts are free to exercise control over what they consider inappropriate.

MICHIGAN: Public libraries are required to choose from three options for preventing children from accessing inappropriate Internet sites. They may install filters, monitor children’s behavior, or require adult supervision.

MINNESOTA: Public and school libraries are required to block Internet access for obscenity and child pornography for both adults and children. They may choose between using either filtering software or “other effective methods.”

SAN FRANCISCO: The city banned the use of Internet filters on most public-access library computers, thus codifying a 1999 San Francisco Public Library policy in opposition to filters.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Public and school libraries must filter computers for pornographic pictures or text; those not in compliance face losing half their state funding.

TENNESSEE: All public school computers have Internet web pages filtered system wide, making the state the first in the nation to employ this approach.

Inside State and Local Restrictions