Orange County officials, concerned that children logging on to computers at public libraries may be heading for the Internet's red-light districts, are planning to require written parental permission for minors to use the Internet.
The policy is to take effect July 1.
Children's use of the free-wheeling Internet is an issue that perplexes public library systems nationwide, said Orange County librarian John Adams. In California, a number of counties have faced lawsuits and protests as librarians try to balance appropriate protections with free speech issues.
"There are things on the Internet that any reasonable person wouldn't want a child exposed to, whether it's explicit sex information or hate speech," Adams said. "We need to make sure that parents are aware of that. But if we put filters on our computer terminals, it raises all sorts of 1st Amendment issues."
Like the Los Angeles County system, Orange County's 27 library branches allow children unrestricted use of the Internet.
But instituting a permission policy would be a staggering administrative burden, said Joan Bartel, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County system. The 68-branch network has about 500 computer terminals and 400,000 children who use the library.
Orange County began working on the policy after Supervisor Todd Spitzer learned last month that the county library didn't block Internet access. He asked county attorneys whether the computers in the library system could be programmed to block access to sexually oriented materials.
"Pornography should not be available in a public library, irrespective of what a parent wants," Spitzer said. "But I understand that we still have to work within constitutional constraints. We think this policy is fully defensible in court."
The single federal case to address the issue brought a ruling that a Virginia library's policy requiring adults to ask librarians to unblock the computer for each unfiltered use violated their 1st Amendment rights, County Counsel Laurence M. Watson said.
While government has found it difficult to regulate what adults can see, it is allowed to regulate what children can view, particularly when it involves pornography.
The problem in Orange County arises because in 25 branches a single terminal is used by both adults and children, making it impractical to use a filter.
Eventually, the purchase of more computer terminals will allow the library to install separate children's terminals with filtering software. When that happens, Spitzer said, he will recommend that children who want to use the unfiltered terminals continue to get parental permission.
Public schools also have faced legal challenges to their filtering devices. A lawsuit filed against Boston city schools was resolved this year with filters remaining on all school computers. But because Internet use in schools involves children only, the question of restricting adult access hasn't been raised.
Elsewhere in California, public libraries have been challenged for blocking Internet access--and for not blocking it.
Livermore Public Library in Alameda County recently was sued by parents whose teenage son took a floppy disk to the library and downloaded pornographic photographs from the Internet. The boy took the disk to a friend's house, printed the photos and distributed them at school.
The parents argued in the lawsuit that the city shouldn't have allowed unlimited Internet access to children.
In Kern County, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union challenged library officials for installing filtering software on Internet terminals. After a review by County Counsel Bernard Barmann, the library added an unfiltered terminal at each of the system's 26 branches.
For the filtered terminals, Kern County hired a private company to block sites containing materials considered inappropriate for minors under state law. The county now bars access to about 60,000 sites.
"The overall policy is that parents are responsible for their children's library use and that includes the computer terminals," Deputy County Counsel John Irby said.
In Ventura County, the Libertarian Party filed suit against a library policy requiring adults using Internet terminals to sign an agreement that they wouldn't use the terminals to view sexually explicit sites. The suit is pending.
Three bills pending in the state Legislature would require filtering Internet access in public libraries for children. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has introduced federal legislation that would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to deny federal funds to schools and libraries that don't install filter software.
Orange County's Adams said the county doesn't monitor an individual's Internet activity, either while they are logged on or afterward, and won't for minors with parental permission to use the Internet terminals.
"Most of us don't want government telling us what we can see or not see," Adams said. "[But] we feel that it's the parents responsibility to supervise their children's activity, rather than just letting the child log on."
Any child wishing to have Internet access will be given a brochure explaining how the Internet works and what kind of information is available, he said. Parents who sign permission forms will be required to have read the brochure and acknowledge the risks.
Internet use is arranged by advance appointment and users are limited to one hour.
Using a filtered computer terminal is not an automatic answer to stopping smut because no filtering software is foolproof. For example, one type of software works by blocking certain keywords. But blocking all obviously sexual keywords means losing access to sites about the city of Middlesex, Conn., for example, or breast cancer.
"The other side of the coin is that, if you type in WhiteHouse.com, you get pictures of naked girls," Adams said. The White House's Web page is http://www.WhiteHouse.gov.
Another way to filter access is to do what Kern County did: Hire an outside firm to create lists of objectionable sites and block access to them. Adams called that a cumbersome and often inefficient process.
"These pages pop up a hundred times a day," he said. "There's no way to keep track of them all."
Spitzer said he asked for a discussion Tuesday before the Orange County Board of Supervisors to air the issue publicly and let parents know that the county is concerned about what their children have access to in the libraries.
He said he expects that the county's new permission policy will draw the attention of potential opponents, such as the ACLU.
Peter Eliasberg, an attorney with the ACLU's Los Angeles office, said the organization generally has targeted filtering programs in objecting to Internet restrictions.
Parental permission "is not as obvious an objection as filters are," Eliasberg said. "Still, any time you have government interjecting itself into the parental relationship with children, we have concerns."
Spitzer responded: "What a child does with the Internet in a public library is all of our business."