[Ecommerce] NYT: Law Limiting Internet in Libraries Challenged
Mon Mar 25 12:00:01 2002
March 25, 2002
Law Limiting Internet in Libraries Challenged
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
This morning in a Philadelphia courtroom, a coalition of libraries, Web
sites and library patrons will begin nine days of hearings in which they
will ask three federal judges to help decide a seemingly simple
question: What is a library for?
They argue that a law passed by Congress in December 2000 requiring
schools and libraries to use Internet filtering software changes the
nature of libraries from being places that provide information to places
that unconstitutionally restrict it.
The law that the librarians and their allies are trying to overturn, the
Children's Internet Protection Act, denies federal financing and
technology discounts via the federal e-Rate program to schools and
public libraries if they do not install a "technology protection
measure" like filters to block access to Web sites deemed harmful to
The coalition of plaintiffs includes the American Library Association,
the American Civil Liberties Union and Jeffrey L. Pollock, a Republican
Congressional candidate who favored mandatory filtering until he
discovered that his own campaign's Web site was blocked by one of the
most popular filtering programs.
They call the law a case of good intentions leading to a bad result,
hamstringing the computers that are, for many people, the sole link to
the Internet. They argue that the law pre-empts community control over
libraries and the judgment of local librarians. They also point to the
failings of the software, which can let objectionable material through
and block constitutionally protected sites. The law constitutes "classic
prior restraint on speech," said Ann Beeson, staff lawyer for the
American Civil Liberties Union.
Those in favor of the filtering law say its opponents mischaracterize
the law and the software. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona,
who co-sponsored the bill, has said it "allows local communities to
decide what technology they want to use, and what to filter out, so that
our children's minds aren't polluted."
Courts have, historically, given the government high hurdles when
restricting speech, requiring strong proof that the restrictions are
necessary and evidence that they have been designed with a finesse that
makes them the least restrictive means of accomplishing the goal.
The government has moved toward a more limited approach, the Children's
Internet Protection Act being only the latest effort by Congress to
restrict the Internet to protect children.
The first major law, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was struck
down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutionally restrictive on First
Amendment speech rights, in part, the court said, because it would
reduce material that adults had a constitutional right to see "to only
what is fit for children."
A more narrow follow-up law, the Children's Online Protection Act, was
challenged before the Supreme Court last November; the decision is
The new case will be heard in United States District Court for the Third
Circuit, by a panel of three judges; under procedures set out in the
filtering law, any appeals will go directly to the Supreme Court.
Donna Rice Hughes, an opponent of pornography who has supported
mandatory filtering, said the law contained "a tremendous amount of
flexibility." She noted that the precise technology to be used by
libraries was not prescribed, and that a library patron with a "bona
fide research or other lawful purpose" can get the library to
temporarily turn off the filters.
Ms. Rice Hughes said the message to libraries was simple: "You've got to
do your part — you've got to put these filters on or you've got to get
your funding elsewhere."
Librarians and their allies say the simple message is complex in
practice. Families might do well with filters as part of the close
supervision of a child's Internet wanderings at home, opponents of the
bill say, but the same technology is ill-suited for use in libraries.
Turning off the filters, they say, is cumbersome, and having to prove a
"bona fide" research purpose violates users' privacy.
"It is going to affect everyone's First Amendment right to get access to
information that is perfectly legal," said Judith F. Krug, director of
the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Computers, the plaintiffs argue, cannot make the fine distinctions among
online sites that are called for in the legislation, which defines
material that is "harmful to minors" as images that appeal to "prurient
interest in nudity, sex or excrement," depictions of sexual acts
presented in a "patently offensive way" and material that, "taken as a
whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value
as to minors."
Some librarians say they would not understand how to apply such a broad
Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Advanced Technology in
Education at the University of Oregon, said there was a deeper issue
that had been lost in the debate over filters: blocking access to what
children see does not prepare them for the unrestricted world that
awaits them when they turn 18. Ms. Willard recommends training children
in responsible Internet use, and has developed a school program for
"We need to help kids develop effective filtering and software systems
that will reside in the hardware that sits upon their shoulders," she
Michael Geist in BNA
NET FILTERING TRIAL OPENS TODAY
The trial on the constitutionality of CIPA, a law that
requires libraries to install and use Internet filtering
software on their computers in order to qualify for
government funding, opens today in Philadelphia. Library
officials and free speech advocates challenging the law are
concerned that filtering technology is imperfect and may
block important information on health, sexuality, and social