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California and the West

Libraries Need Not Screen Net, Judges Say

Court: Panel says they are not required to block pornographic sites. A Bay Area woman had claimed access had harmed her son.

March 08, 2001|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Public libraries in California are not required to block access to pornographic sites on the Internet, a state Court of Appeal has decided.

In a decision believed to be the first of its kind, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal here ruled that libraries cannot be held liable when youngsters peruse pornographic material on Internet sites.

"A public library is in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation in deciding whether to restrict access to the Internet from its computers to prevent harm to minors," Justice Daniel Hanlon wrote for the court late Tuesday.

A woman identified as Kathleen R. brought the case after her 12-year-old son downloaded sexually explicit photographs at a city library in Livermore, a community of 70,000 about 60 miles east of San Francisco.

The boy, Brandon, viewed pornographic sites on about 10 occasions and later showed some of the material to friends. One of the pictures showed two nude women in a sexual embrace, an attorney for the boy's mother said.

The mother alleged that the boy suffered psychological harm and sued to prevent Livermore's libraries from dispensing obscene material on computers used by children.

The court, rejecting her suit, based its decision on a federal law that protects Internet providers from liability for failing to edit or restrict offensive material.

"The library's Internet policy . . . did not compel minors to use the library's computers or create any of the harmful matter accessible through such use," the court said.

More than 50 California cities had sided with Livermore in the case, Kathleen R. vs. City of Livermore, A086349.

Michael Millen, the attorney for Kathleen R., said Wednesday that he had not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.

He said Brandon's viewing of the sexually explicit material led to an "obsession" and "antisocial" behavior.

"This had a real effect on him," said the affiliate attorney of the nonprofit Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based legal group that advocates parental rights.

Livermore Assistant City Atty. Daniel G. Sodergren said the city's library policy instructs parents that they should supervise their children's use of the Internet. Policies on Internet access vary from city to city, with some libraries requiring children to present parental permission slips before they use the Internet, he said.

"This is a local issue that needs to be decided by every individual library board," Sodergren said.

Ann Brick, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, called the ruling a "vindication for public libraries."

"This says to libraries, you can maintain your open access policy, your uncensored access to the Internet, free from the fear of lawsuits," said Brick, who argued on behalf of Livermore.

A new federal law that takes effect April 20 will require libraries that receive certain kinds of federal funds to restrict access to pornographic sites.

Livermore will not be affected by the law, nor will the Los Angeles County Library, according to a spokeswoman. Los Angeles city attorneys are still trying to determine whether the law will affect Los Angeles city library branches.

Brick of the ACLU said San Francisco libraries will be affected because of the type of federal funds they receive. The civil liberties group plans to challenge the new law.

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, cited the new law and pending legislation as evidence that "without question we are winning the war."

"When we filed this lawsuit, the issue wasn't even before the public eye," Dacus said.

In a related case, a federal appeals court in Virginia ruled in 1998 that a library that blocked certain materials online violated free-speech provisions of the federal Constitution.

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