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To Filter Or Not To Filter?

Fairfax County librarians discuss what is acceptable to view on the Internet.

When Fairfax City resident Rick Fary heard what had happened to his daughter at the Fairfax City Regional Library, Fary became upset. His 17-year-old daughter took her younger sister to work on a research project on a May 23 Sunday afternoon.

As his oldest daughter was sitting at an Internet access station, she heard a man grunting next to her. Curious, she saw the man was looking at pornographic images on the Internet and printing them. The oldest daughter reported the man to the librarian and learned that even though the man was looking at pornographic material, the policy for Internet usage in the Fairfax County library system dictates that unless the person is conducting illegal activities like gambling or child pornography, nothing could be done except to ask the man to be mindful of being in a public place.

"I find it totally unbelievable," Fary said. "People bring their kids to the library thinking it's a safe place."

Although instances like the one described happen infrequently, according to library officials, the question of acceptable Internet use continues to pop up at the local, state and federal levels of government. The Supreme Court last June 29 refrained from ruling on the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which penalizes commercial Web sites that fail to block access of sexual material harmful to minors, and the General Assembly this past spring considered a bill to install Internet filters in all Virginia libraries.

"I think that you're always going to have those abuses. What we say to the public is that we try to manage those," said Ann Friedman, director of the Arlington County Public Library. Its library system does not use Internet filters to block access to material inappropriate for children.

DURING THE PAST FISCAL YEAR, county library patrons have accessed the Internet stations more than 600,000 times. For each of the 147 Internet stations within the 21 branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system, the current policy is that all residents may surf the Internet for a 30-minute maximum session. The patron signs his name on a schedule session worksheet, and by signing the name, adheres to the Internet usage policy.

Under the "acceptable use" policy, patrons may surf or e-mail, but they cannot use chatrooms, nor can they look at material involving illegal activities like gambling or child pornography.

Patrons can research material on the Internet for personal, educational or work purposes, and some use their time to take online tests or fill out school or work applications.

"It's brought in all kinds of new folks," said Fairfax County Public Library director Edwin S. "Sam" Clay III, referring to the social and economic diversity of clientele using the library.

Internet access began in Fairfax County libraries in 1996. The Library Board, which governs library policies, originally planned for the Internet to be available for reference librarians only but soon created a task force examining Internet usage.

"We knew it was going to engender a number of issues," Clay said.

The Library Board went through a year's study on the Internet, looking at where to put the Internet stations, what the rules should be and whether to use filters for the computers.

The Board agreed that the stations be placed in full view of the public but decided against filtering for several reasons, according to Clay. In the spirit of free speech, the other collections of the library, such as nonfiction books, are not "filtered" according to their contents, although each book must comply within nine criteria set by the Board.

Another reason against filtering was that the Board felt the quality of the filtering technology was insufficient or not as advanced as it could be, thus blocking a greater range of material.

"Nothing looked like it was going to work 100 percent," recalled former Library Board member Jane Seeman, who currently serves as Vienna's mayor.

A third reason was a concern that if the library system did install filtering, it would not be sustained if it was challenged on the grounds of free speech.

Indeed, in Loudoun County, the county was sued for the use of filters in public libraries. In Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Public Libraries, the U.S. District Court in Alexandria decided on Sept. 4, 1998, that Internet filtering in public libraries was unconstitutional and violated the First Amendment.

"The view of the Internet is that it's a different medium," Clay said. "Libraries don't recommend or endorse, they promote."

As is, Fairfax County Public Libraries do not filter, although library staff are directed each year to monitor development of filters. The policy must also be reviewed each year by the state's Library Board.

WHILE FAIRFAX and Arlington counties do not filter, Loudoun County uses a policy where patrons must decide at the time they are issued a library card whether or not they prefer a computer with filters, with parents or legal guardians making the decision for their children.

When patrons want to use the Internet, they give their library cards to the librarian.

It's "perfect. It works very well," said Loudoun County Public Libraries assistant director Linda Holtslander. "Adults have the opportunity to make the choice."

Other jurisdictions are required to use filters to block pornographic sites if they use federal money to fund Internet access. That requirement, under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), is applicable to both libraries and schools, and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003.

Because Fairfax and Arlington counties do not use federal funding to support Internet access, the law does not apply to them.

However, the question about Internet filters continues at the state level, as one bill, HB 475, required library boards to include in their acceptable use policy a provision for filtering or blocking. The bill also required library boards to select and install the "technology protection measure."

Del. Samuel A. Nixon Jr. (R-27th) crafted the bill, and Del. Richard H. "Dick" Black (R-32nd) of Loudoun County was a co-patron. Black's own bill, HB 189, was rolled into Nixon's bill.

The bill failed to pass the Committee on Science and Technology by a vote of 11 to 7.

"Parents should feel comfortable dropping their children off to the library and not be afraid of their children being exposed to illegal material," said Black's legislative aide Callie Chaplow, who added that the bill would have filtered material already illegal.

That bill would have satisfied the concerns of Fary, who, when he went to the library to discuss what had happened to his daughter, came across a man masturbating in his car in the library parking lot.

"They need some type of accountability for those computers," Fary said.

Fary added that he had talked to the police and a friend who works for the FBI, all of whom said that the actions of the man at the computer were not against the law.

"What worries me is the kids," Fary said.

Yet several area librarians said that although those situations are unfortunate, they are also rare. If librarians do notice someone looking at objectionable material, they ask the patron to be mindful that he is in a public place. They could only recall one or two situations when they had to approach patrons.

"We look for their cooperation, and we receive it," said Jean Johnston, branch manager of the Patrick Henry Library in Vienna.

Kathy Hoffman, assistant branch manager at the Fairfax City Regional Library, agreed.

"They're usually pretty cooperative at getting rid of it," Hoffman said.

While the Library Board reviews its Internet use policy annually, Fairfax County plans to install software later this year that would use a library card or guest pass for Internet access, with the objective being to ensure the patrons do not go beyond the 30-minute time limit.

Indeed, going over session time is generally the most problematic they encounter, several local librarians said. That, and cellphone usage in the library.