Some legislators’ attempts to tie eRate funding to internet filtering requirements have civil liberties and education groups crying foul. But do bills such the Internet Filtering Act‹recently passed by the Senate Commerce Committee‹violate the Constitution? Maybe not.
Bills sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., would require schools and libraries to install systems for filtering or blocking access to such material as a condition to eRate discounts. Coats’s bill would also curtail commercial distribution on the web of text or images of a sexual nature that are harmful to minors.
The obvious concern here is that increased access will put children in touch with the pornography and sexual predators on the internet, which is still largely unregulated.
Library and civil rights organizations argue that the filters block much more than pornographic material, and thus may keep students from accessing educational information as well. If the filters block out “appropriate” information, the question of the First Amendment arises.
The Supreme Court has allowed schools to preclude both “pervasively vulgar” and “harmful” speech within the school, especially when it involves the curriculum(Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 1986, and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). More recently, the Court decided a case involving the screening of local access cable for indecent sexual material inDenver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium, Inc., et al. v. FCC (1996). The Court found the measure to be a violation of the First Amendment because there was little indication that the problem was “pervasive” and because there were less restrictive means of protecting the public from pornographic material.
It doesn’t take much exploration to find lewd sites on the internet. Just click on the “adult” button on the 100Hot search engine. You are one click away from sites whose titles suggest their contents‹fetishes, fantasies, bondage, and more.
The pictures leave little to the imagination and most of them move! To access these sites you need to do nothing but click. So in roughly two clicks of the mouse, you can view material that would come wrapped in brown paper at the news stand.
Yes, notices announce that you are entering a site that contains “adult” material. What’s not clear is whether these notices are meant as a means of warning or enticing the visitor.
No screening ensures that only adults have access. When you consider the amount, the severity, and the ease of access, I believe it would be easy to conclude that there is (or will be) a “pervasive problem.”
The Supreme Court also considers whether the means used to accomplish the goal of protecting the children from objectionable material is the “least restrictive alternative.”
Until someone comes out with a software or hardware solution that is easier to use or more precise than the filters that are commercially available now, the only choices are censoring what goes onto the internet or filtering what children can view. There is little disagreement that the latter is less restrictive than the former. In light of the current technology, requiring a filter to protect our children from objectionable sites would seem to be the more reasonable choice.
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