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."

Date

Wednesday, January 28, 1998 (All day)

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BAKERSFIELD - In a letter sent today to city officials in Kern County, California, the American Civil Liberties Union said it may take legal action if officials do not remove Internet filtering software from public library computers within 10 days.

The ACLU said that the software installed by the county blocks access to a wide range of socially valuable, constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. The county library system provides at least 50 computer terminals in more than 25 library branches.

"We have been negotiating in good faith with Kern County since last August to try to resolve constitutional problems with the Internet filtering software they are using," said ACLU National Staff Attorney Ann Beeson, who signed the letter to county officials on behalf of the national ACLU and the ACLU's of Northern and Southern California.

"The time has come for Kern County to realize that there is simply no way for a software program to make legal distinctions between protected and unprotected speech," Beeson concluded.

The controversy began in July 1996, after the Kern County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to block online material defined as "harmful to minors" under California state law. Upon learning that the board's solution involved installation of a filtering program called "Bess," the ACLU contacted officials to advise them of the free speech problems with this approach.

Although the developers of the Bess software had earlier informed the board that "we cannot customize [the software] to filter `harmful material' by web site as defined in California Penal Code Section 313," the board went ahead with the program. Only after hearing from the ACLU did the board go back to the makers of Bess and ask unsuccessfully that the company "refine" the software.

"We continue to hope that this issue can be resolved without litigation, but we are prepared to go to federal court to protect the free speech rights of library patrons and Internet speakers," said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

"Frankly, we are surprised at the Board's action," he added. "As the American Library Association has long recognized, libraries should be in the business of providing information of all kinds, not censoring it."

In its letter to the county, the ACLU noted that officials in the city of San Jose and in Santa Clara County, California had recently decided against installing filtering programs on public computer terminals in its libraries.

The issue has drawn 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, Ann Beeson said.

Ultimately, the library controversy may lead back to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in Reno v. ACLU, striking down a federal Internet censorship law that contemplated restrictions on access to online speech. In its sweeping decision, issued in June 1997, the Court confirmed that the Internet is analogous to books, not broadcast, and is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection.

"Web sites accessed from a library's computer are just like the books on a library's shelves," said Ann Brick, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. "The constitution prevents the government from censoring either one."

Date

Wednesday, January 21, 1998 (All day)

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The ACLU of Southern California today filed a federal lawsuit (Beauchamp vs Los Angeles County MTA) against the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a bus company, Ryder/ATE, Inc., on behalf of five disabled bus riders in Los Angeles County charging that these transportation agencies do not adequately serve disabled riders. The lawsuit charges that the MTA and Ryder/ATE are violating the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1974 Rehabilitation Act by discriminating against riders with mobility impairments.

Ryder/ATE operates several bus lines for the MTA in the Long Beach and Artesia areas of Los Angeles County. Plaintiffs are asking for a declaration that both Ryder/ATE and the MTA have violated federal law. They are also asking for an injunction requiring defendants to give equal access to disabled passengers and to eliminate any discrimination against persons with disabilities who use their buses.

The five plaintiffs are disabled passengers who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Although they have repeatedly complained about defendants' failure to accommodate people with disabilities, none of the alleged conditions have been improved. According to the lawsuit, Ryder/ATE, Inc. and the MTA have refused to accommodate disabled bus riders, subjecting them to hazardous conditions that have resulted in physical injuries, humiliation, emotional distress, and monetary loss. Specifically, Ryder/ATE, Inc. and the MTA have failed to repair and maintain the equipment which allows passengers using wheel chairs to board and exit buses. The doors used by disabled passengers are frequently malfunctioning or broken. The clamps used to secure wheelchairs of disabled riders are frequently missing, broken or malfunctioning.

The ACLU is also charging that Ryder/ATE, Inc. and MTA bus drivers are not adequately trained to serve disabled passengers or to operate the equipment which the disabled need to use the buses. Plaintiffs allege that bus drivers often fail or refuse to pick them up at bus stops and that the bus stops are poorly maintained, making it very difficult for disabled riders to board and leave the buses safely.

The federal lawsuit claims that these transportation agencies are violating the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1974 Rehabilitation Act. The ADA was enacted to dismantle all forms of discrimination which prevent disabled individuals from obtaining opportunities, participation, independence and economic self-sufficiency. Further, because Ryder/ATE, Inc. and the MTA receive federal funds, they are subject to the 1990 Rehabilitation Act which demands full inclusion for individuals with disabilities by those agencies receiving federal funds.

Ryder/ATE, Inc., a Delaware corporation, operates at least seven bus lines for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, including bus lines regularly used by plaintiffs. The MTA was created by the California State Legislature to administer, plan, and provide transportation services for Los Angeles County.

Date

Friday, January 16, 1998 (All day)

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