April 27, 2000 05:36pm
S.C. Libraries Get OK to Censor Net Porn
by: David Noack
(COLUMBIA, S.C.) -- Public libraries throughout the state can now filter Internet content without fear of trampling on the First Amendment.
State Attorney General Charles Condon issued that sentiment in a legal decision Tuesday on whether public libraries that use filtering or blocking software are violating free speech.
"Public libraries have no obligation to provide computers or Internet service," Condon wrote in a 10-page decision. "Notwithstanding this fact, however, public libraries have the constitutional right to use filters to remove pornography."
The attorney general's opinion was requested by state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, who has proposed a bill mandating that libraries use online filtering software.
The legislation was sparked by the Greenville County Library Board's refusal to install the protective software on computers.
Bills deny funding without software
The use of filtering software to block adult Web sites in the nation's libraries has pitted free-speech advocates against those wanting to shield children from the seamier side of the Internet.
The bill, which is being considered by a legislative subcommittee, would remove legal protections South Carolina libraries have enjoyed since a 1991 state law prohibited giving minors access to pornography. The parents of children who see pornography on the Internet in the library could file an incident report with the local prosecutor, who then would decide whether to bring the case to a grand jury.
Other bills would deny funding to libraries that do not install the filtering software.
Under current state law, a number of institutions, including government agencies, schools and churches, are exempt from being prosecuted for disseminating "harmful materials to minors" so long as they are "carrying out their legitimate functions."
Fair's law would remove public libraries from that protected category, but not school and university libraries.
'Not an adult bookstore'
He said the bill might not be voted on this year because the session ends June 1. He is, however, considering attaching his proposal to another bill.
Condon said Internet filtering is the "least-restrictive means" to protect children.
"A public library is not an adult bookstore or pornographic peep show," Condon stated. "The First Amendment does not prohibit public libraries from using Internet filters to protect minors from harmful, vulgar material."
He said libraries must take steps to shield children from the "salacious side" of the Internet or face "liability for exposing minors to harm."
"The Internet filter provides a constitutional means to make sure that children continue going to the public library in a safe, healthy environment," Condon said. "A public library can constitutionally filter filth from the eyes of children."
Net being treated differently
Fair decided to propose the bill, which would go before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after the county library board voted down a proposal to provide Internet filtering software. The board, however, did approve policies that require a parent either to accompany a child under 12 in order to use the Internet or write a letter for teens 12 to 17 to go online.
"This is not a First Amendment issue," Fair said.
He does not believe his proposal is extreme, saying there are other bills in the legislature that would cut off funding to public libraries that don't provide filters across the state.
C. Rauch Wise, an attorney in Greenwood and member of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Internet is being treated differently than other material in a library that children are too young to see.
"I don't think Mike Fair or the attorney general would ever say that because there are books in the library that children should not read, the library has a right to ban those books," Wise said.
'Constitutional protections' needed
He questioned whether the two state officials were saying that the only material allowed in a library be suitable for children.
"I think that has real First Amendment problems," Wise said.
The American Library Association (ALA) is opposed to the use of blocking or filtering software, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Internet has the same First Amendment protections as newspapers and magazines.
"For libraries, the most critical holding of the Supreme Court is that libraries that make content available on the Internet can continue to do so with the same constitutional protections that apply to the books on libraries' shelves," the ALA said.