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Court upholds Children’s Internet Protection Act

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Court upholds Children’s Internet Protection Act

  • Requiring libraries to install Internet filters in exchange for federal assistance does not violate the Constitution, the court held Monday.

June 23, 2003 — A law mandating the blocking of obscenity and pornography on library computers was upheld Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision overturns a lower court’s earlier ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act, passed by Congress in 2000, requires libraries to use computer filters in order to receive federal funding for Internet access.

The American Library Association, along with other groups representing libraries, patrons and others, filed suit in a Philadelphia district court, claiming CIPA’s filtering provisions were unconstitutional. The district court agreed.

Although six justices agreed with the decision, only four joined the Court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Imposing a filter requirement on all library computers does not infringe upon First Amendment rights, Rehnquist wrote.

A computer serves the same purpose as the rest of the materials in a library; it provides opportunities for learning and research. Internet terminals do not serve primarily as outlets for free expression, he continued.

Rehnquist wrote that libraries generally choose to exclude books containing pornography, and this discretion should be applied to online obscenity as well. But allowing patrons to see only Web sites that libraries have viewed and approved of would sever access to countless sources of information.

“Given that tradeoff, it is entirely reasonable for public libraries to reject that approach and instead exclude certain categories of content,” Rehnquist wrote.

The court addressed the issue of filters that accidentally block constitutionally protected speech. Patrons who wish to access these sites can ask a librarian to disable the filter.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice David Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, questioned the ease of obtaining an unblocked computer. Additionally, preventing adults from accessing legal information is censorship, he wrote.

Installing Internet filters should be a library’s choice, said Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote a separate dissent. CIPA “operates as a blunt nationwide restraint on adult access,” and all libraries are compelled to conform. Less rigid alternatives, such as forbidding access of illegal speech or requiring parental consent to use unfiltered computers, are better options, he added.

The impact of Monday’s decision probably will be felt on several levels, said Jonathan Bloom, an attorney who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of several organizations, including the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Use of filters will interfere with access to many types of information, he said. A site could be blocked because it contains a word that is sexually explicit or obscene only when used in different contexts.

The ruling also will place an additional load on librarians and staff, who will have to evaluate each request to unblock material on a case-by-case basis, Bloom said. The costs of implementing the software in the libraries also could be a burden, he added.

(United States v. American Library Association; Counsel for ALA: Paul M. Smith, Jenner & Block LLC, Washington D.C.) EH

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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