BAKERSFIELD Responding to a warning from the American Civil Liberties Union that mandatory use of Internet filtering software may result in a lawsuit, libraries in Kern County, California, were sent this directive late Tuesday: "Please unfilter your terminals immediately!"

According to a letter faxed to the ACLU today and signed by Kern County Counsel Bernard C. Barmann, Sr., the county's new policy will provide a choice of an unfiltered or a filtered computer to both adult and minor patrons. No parental consent will be required for minors to access unfiltered computers.

The resolution came less than one week after the ACLU issued a warning that it would take legal action if officials did not remove Internet filtering software from public library computers within 10 days. The ACLU hailed the policy change as a complete victory for free speech rights.

"The County made the right decision, and I'm sure we are all relieved that this issue has been resolved swiftly and without a lengthy and costly legal battle," said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

"Kern County now joins libraries in Santa Clara County and in San Jose, among others, in deciding to be providers of information, not censors," he added.

"We applaud the Board of Supervisor's decision to honor the First Amendment rights of Kern County citizens by changing its library Internet access policy to allow all adult and minor patrons to decide for themselves whether to access the Internet with or without a filter," said ACLU National Staff Attorney Ann Beeson, in a letter to the County Counsel sent on behalf of the national ACLU and the ACLU's of Northern and Southern California.

Beeson also urged the libraries to clearly mark filtered and nonfiltered terminals so that patrons can make informed decisions about which terminal to use, and to place terminals for maximum privacy.

The filtering issue has drawn many cities across the country into a national debate about whether library systems should limit what people can see on the Internet. A library in Loudon County, Virginia is currently facing a legal challenge from local library patrons after adopting a similar Internet blocking policy. The ACLU is considering an intervention in that lawsuit on behalf of online speakers who are blocked from reaching library patrons.

"Libraries are our nation's storehouses of knowledge," said Ann Brick, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. "Their mission is to make that knowledge available to young and old alike. Filters are fundamentally antithetical to that mission."