Jim Hannon is having fun with democracy. The thin, wild-haired part-time security guard and Internet guerrilla wears a mischievous grin beneath his baseball cap as he logs on to the Orange County government's Internet site using an Orange County library computer terminal. "Now, let's say I want to e-mail County Chairman Mel Martinez," Hannon says, clicking on the appropriate link. A rectangular message box appears -- but not one that allows feedback. The Orange County library system's computers are equipped with a filtering program called WebSense, designed to keep children from viewing pornography. But the program also denies library patrons the opportunity to communicate with their government.
Hannon has waged a lonely battle with library director Dorothy Field since 1996 to get the filter removed and freedom restored. He has picketed the library and written letters to public officials. In one case, a librarian swiped the keyboard from under his hands as Hannon tried to e-mail to a U.S. senator, he says.
Hannon has won a small victory, too: About a year ago, the library quietly stopped blocking access to "free e-mail" sites such as Hotmail that are available on the web. But Field, who has garnered national attention for her library system as one of just a handful that filters Internet content for adults and children alike, says the filter is here to stay as part of the library's "selection policy."
Field says First Amendment law doesn't apply to a librarian's decision not to stock Penthouse, and the WebSense filter is the same thing.
But in "Mainstream Loudon v. Board of Trustees of the Loudon County Library," a Virginia library made the same claim, and a judge rejected it last November.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema wrote in her decision: "Indeed, defendant's own expert, David Burt, undercuts its argument by acknowledging that '[f]iltering cannot be rightly compared to "selection," since it involves an active, rather than passive exclusion of certain types of content.'"
Central to the Loudon case is the arbitrary nature of the blocking technology. The program always blocks out some things it should allow and lets in some things it shouldn't. Because of that imprecise filtering, the program violates the rights of web authors to have their work heard and seen. WebSense has been shown by Internet activists to block such innocuous things as a Japanese baseball team site and a New Jersey grocer's site [Web nonsense, Aug. 27, 1998].
Hannon has created a website called "Love, Joy, Peace Forever Ministry," which includes an Internet Prayer Request Form. At the center of a form is a feedback button allowing the user to e-mail the site, which in turn posts the prayer requests. The Orange County library computers blocked the use of the button until Hannon found a technical route around it. But the block still works on any web page feedback form using the e-mail program's extensions -- such as the Orange County government site.
"It certainly isn't that we're blocking it," says library spokeswoman Marilyn Hoffman. "It must be something with the software program. We certainly don't intend to block it."
Florida's American Civil Liberties Union chapter considered a lawsuit against the Orange County library system two years ago, but according to chief counsel Andy Kayton, backed out in part because "we found out that in truth the parameters on the software were set so that there is almost no censorship at all."
Hannon is considering filing his own suit. "My bottom-line thing on this -- according to the Virginia decision, filtering in a public library is unconstitutional," he notes. "The library's whole idea is [to] block porn, make it safe for kids, and I bought into that myself before I saw the real effect of it."