Issue 72, Winter 1998/1999

Public libraries in Loudoun County, Virginia, may not block sexually explicit material on the Internet, ruled a federal district judge in a decision that is expected to influence library policies elsewhere (Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees). The Loudoun County policy, which required filters for all library computers connected to the Internet, blocked web sites with information about safe sex, banned books, and gay and lesbian teens. Judge Leonie Brinkema pointed out that libraries are not obligated to provide Internet access to their patrons, but when they do so, they may not violate First Amendment rights of adults “just because the material is unfit for minors.”

Judge Brinkema, a former librarian, suggested that there are less restrictive ways to “minimize access to illegal pornography” and to “avoid creation of a sexually hostile environment,” such as privacy screens and reserving some terminals with filtering programs for minors. (She did not predict whether or not those measures would be constitutional.)

Most librarians advocate teaching youngsters responsibility in using the Internet, and letting young people and parents know which websites have appropriate and valuable information, and how to access them.