Citation Edit

Mainstream Loudon v. Board of Trustees of Loudon County, 2 F.Supp.2d 783 (E.D. Va. 1998) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Loudon County is located in Virginia and is the site of, or very close to, many major computer and Internet companies. These companies include America Online, BTG, Caci, CyberCash, FastComm, Netrix, PSINet, and UUNet. The County also runs a public library system with six branches.

On October 20, 1997, the Board of Directors of the library adopted a "Policy on Internet Sexual Harassment" ("Policy") which limited usersInternet access on its computers. On its ten Internet-connected computers, the library installed the Library Edition of the X-STOP blocking software, produced by Log On Data Corp. The Policy provided that:

(1) the library would not provide e-mail, chat rooms, or pornography;
(2) all library computers would be equipped with site-blocking software to block all sites displaying:
(a) child pornography and obscene material; and
(b) material deemed harmful to juveniles;
(3) all library computers would be installed near and in full view of library staff; and
(4) patrons would not be permitted to access pornography and, if they do so and refuse to stop, the police may be called to intervene.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

On December 22, 1997, the plaintiffs (Loudoun Country residents) filed suit against the Board of Trustees of the libraries. They asked the federal court to prevent the county public library from blocking public access to computers in the library. They argued that blocking their access violated their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The library, however, argued that a library has an absolute right to limit what it supplies to the public. It further alleged that any restrictions on Internet access do not involve the First Amendment.

Because freedom of speech under the First Amendment was at issue, the library’s denial of access to the websites would have had to pass muster under strict scrutiny review. That is, this restriction would only survive if: it was "necessary to serve a compelling state interest and . . . is narrowly drawn to achieve that end."[1] The library's denial of access failed to meet this high standard.

On February 2, 1998, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs also filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court judge denied most of the defendant’s motions and granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. Further, she barred the library from enforcing its blocking software policy. The library board did not appeal.

Although defendant had no obligation to supply Internet access to its patrons, it chose to do so and was thus restricted by the First Amendment in the limitations it could place on patron access.

In order for its limitations to pass muster under strict scrutiny review, the library had to show that the limitations were (1) necessary to serve a compelling state interest and (2) narrowly tailored to achieve that end.

(1) Whether the limitations were necessary to serve a compelling state interest:

The trial court stated that limiting access to illegal pornography and trying to avoid a sexually hostile environment were compelling government interests. Thus, the defendant showed that it had compelling government interests.

However, to satisfy strict scrutiny, the defendant had to do more than demonstrate that it has such an interest; it had to show that if there was no such policy, a sexually hostile environment might exist and/or there would be a problem with individuals accessing child pornography or obscenity or minors accessing sites that are illegal for them to access. The library would have to show that this threat is "actual, material, and substantial." Despite its efforts, the trial court ruled that the library was not able to prove this.

(2) Whether the policy was narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling government interest:

In addition to proving that the limitations on access were necessary to serve a compelling government interest, the library would have to show the following: that the policy is narrowly tailored. This means exploring the following areas: (1) whether there is a less restrictive means available; (2) whether the policy is over-inclusive, and (3) whether X-Stop, the program that the defendant used, is the least restrictive filtering software available.

The trial court ruled that the defendant failed to prove these elements and that the policy, therefore, was not narrowly tailored to achieve the government interest. Accordingly, the library’s policy did not pass strict scrutiny and was thus banned.

References Edit

  1. Perry Education Ass'n v. Perry Local Ass'n, 460 U.S. 37, 45-46 (1983).

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