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Judges declare library filter law unconstitutional

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         THIRD CIRCUIT         Prior Restraints         Jun 4, 2002    

Judges declare library filter law unconstitutional

  • A three-judge panel overturned the Child Internet Protection Act, which mandated Internet filters for public libraries, on grounds that it violated the First Amendment rights of library patrons.

Legislation that required libraries to use Internet filters to prevent its patrons from accessing objectionable material or risk losing federal funding was struck down by a federal court panel on May 31 as a violation of the First Amendment.

Writing an opinion for a special three-judge panel, Justice Edward R. Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.), indicated that the court sympathized with the government’s goals of preventing library patrons access to obscene material.

“Unfortunately this outcome, devoutly to be wished, is not available in this less than best of all possible worlds,” Becker wrote. “No category definition used by the blocking programs is identical to the legal definition of obscenity, child pornography, or material harmful to minors, and, at all events, filtering programs fail to block access to a substantial amount of content on the Internet” that falls into these categories.

Not only does the required filtering software “underblock” access to obscene material, but it also “overblocks” a large amount of information that is protected speech under the First Amendment, the panel said. For example, under the current filtering system, library patrons may be prevented from obtaining information relating to health and sexuality issues.

While the government argued that use of filtering software would be equivalent to a library’s practice of selecting and purchasing material for its collection, the court disagreed. It applied a strict scrutiny test and indicated that the “use of filtering software is permissible only if it is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest and no less restrictive alternative would serve that interest.”

The court held that less restrictive alternatives were available to the public libraries. Some of the less restrictive practices that the court suggested and are currently used by public libraries include: filters offered as a choice for families to use for their own children at the public library; education and Internet training courses; enforcement of policies by library staff; and placement of terminals, the use of privacy screens or recessed monitors.

President Clinton signed the Child Internet Protection Act into law in December 2000. An effort to protect children from accessing pornography over the Internet, the law required public libraries receiving federal funding to adopt and implement Internet safety policies that include operation of a “technology protection measure” that blocks or filters Internet access to web sites that are obscene, contain child pornography, or are harmful to minors.

Libraries were required to comply with the law by July 1 or face the loss of federal funding.

The American Library Association filed suit on March 20, 2001, joining with the public libraries of Multnomah County, Ore., the American Civil Liberties Union and a variety of Web sites in a challenge to the legislation.

A provision of the law required challenges to be heard by a special three-judge panel. U.S. District judges John P. Fullam and Harvey Bartle III were members of the panel along with Chief Judge Edward R. Becker of the Court of Appeals. If the government decides to appeal the decision, the case would go directly to the Supreme Court.

(American Library Association v. United States; Counsel, Paul Smith, Jenner and Block, Washington, D.C.) JLW

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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