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Court: Libraries can filter the Web

Fri., May 7, 2010

Also, Spokane man’s right to own firearm restored

OLYMPIA – Public libraries do not have to turn off their Internet filters for adult patrons who want to view pornography on library computers, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday.

The state’s highest court said the constitutional protections of free speech weren’t violated by Internet filters at the North Central Regional Library District that blocked pornography and other materials the library determined were inappropriate.

“A public library has never been required to include all constitutionally protected speech in its collection and has traditionally had the authority, for example, to legitimately decline to include adult-oriented material such as pornography in its collection,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the majority opinion signed by four other justices. “This same discretion continues to exist with respect to Internet materials.”

In a separate case, the court ruled 9-0 that a Spokane man convicted of vehicular homicide in 1996 can’t be denied the ability to own a gun because of changes to state law that occurred after his conviction. The court restored James Rivard’s right to own a firearm after a four-year court fight.

The library case involves a district that covers Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan counties with 28 branch libraries, some of which double as school libraries. The district has Internet access at its branches, but uses a filter that blocks sites with pornography, gambling, spyware and some other categories. A patron who goes to a page that is blocked can request the block be lifted, but the library does not allow sites with pornography, nudity or “adult materials” through the filter, even if an adult requests it.

Three patrons argued the policy was a “prior restraint” on their state rights of free speech, which is often viewed as even broader than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But a majority of the state Supreme Court said the Internet is “a vast river of information,” and the library district’s filtering policy was a realistic solution to select items without reducing the available material to “a bare trickle, or a few drops.”

Three justices disagreed, saying the filters block constitutionally protected speech, and the library district can disable them for an adult on request. But the district chooses not to because it is inconvenient.

“Simply put, the state has no interest in protecting adults from constitutionally protected materials on the Internet,” Justice Tom Chambers wrote in a dissent signed by Justices Richard Sanders and Debra Stephens. “Concerns that a child might see something unfortunate on the screen must be dealt with in a less draconian manner.”

In the firearms case, Rivard was charged with vehicular homicide after a 1993 accident in which he hit and killed 20-year-old James Mecsko, who was skateboarding late at night in Peaceful Valley. The first trial ended in a hung jury in 1994; he pleaded guilty in 1997, served 90 days in jail and two years probation. In 1996, the law changed to make vehicular homicide a Class A felony, which removes gun ownership rights. When Rivard applied to have his rights restored in 2006, a trial court initially said yes, but the appeals court said no, contending he should be covered by the newer rules.

The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the law in 1993 when the crime was committed would have barred him from owning a gun for five years, and he had waited nine years, so he was eligible to have his rights restored.

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