Schools and libraries must begin using internet filtering software next year to protect children from pornography or risk losing federal money, thanks to a mandate approved by Congress Dec. 15 and signed into law by President Clinton a week later.

“We are signing it with some reticence,” White House spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said of the filtering mandate, which appeared as an amendment attached to the education spending bill. Smith explained that Clinton okayed the filtering mandate because the spending bill was long overdue.

The new law has many school and library associations and free-speech advocates up in arms.

“This is a mandated censorship system by the federal government,” said Chris Hansen, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which plans to sue in an effort to block the law.

In a 292 to 60 vote, Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act—sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., and Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss.—as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill (H.R.4577), also referred to as Labor HHS.

The law, which amends the Telecommunications Act of 1996, makes schools or libraries ineligible for federal eRate funding unless they certify to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they (1) have chosen to use a technology that filters or blocks access to material that is obscene or pornographic and (2) are enforcing its use when minors use the computers.

“Parents can protect their children from internet smut at home but have no control over the computers at school,” McCain said. “This legislation 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.”

Supporters of the law argue that it ensures children will be protected from internet content that is harmful to minors, especially as the number of computers in schools and libraries increases.

“As parents, elected officials, teachers, and members of the community, it is our responsibility to provide a safe and responsible learning environment in our schools and libraries,” Santorum said. “It is especially important to give communities the flexibility to develop and tailor internet-use policies to suit the needs and resources of the local community.”

But opponents say the law creates an “unfunded mandate” and treads on the ability of local school boards to make their own decisions.

“We think it’s a travesty. It ignores what really needs to be done in schools, which is education,” said Claudette Tennant, assistant director of the American Library Association’s Office of Government Relations.

Tennant said the responsibility of managing internet content shouldn’t be turned over to a piece of machinery, because this will provide a false sense of security in schools.

“Filtering is not the only—or best—way to provide children a safe and positive experience on the internet,” Tennant said. “This tramples on the local decision-making of authorities.”

Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst on education technology issues for the National Education Association, called the law a “mandate that doesn’t seem to come from any need.”

The group’s experience shows that educators are comfortable with the responsibility of managing internet content, she said, and they don’t need the federal government to come in and tell them how to do their job.

“From what we hear—and we represent almost two and half million people—school districts are addressing this and involving the community in making these decisions,” Stein said. “We take child safety and security very seriously. We have the sense that school districts and communities and parents and teachers and school administrators are handling this successfully.”

Under the law, school and library administrators are free to choose any filtering or blocking system that would best fit their community standards and local needs. They also can determine what matter is inappropriate for minors and will be blocked.

The FCC is charged with determining when schools and libraries must be certified under the new law. If schools do not comply with the law, they are required to reimburse each telecommunications carrier in an amount equal to the universal service discounts they have received.

The law is “going to be a huge strain on already scarce resources,” Tennant said. Lawmakers do allow funds from a few existing programs to be used for filtering technologies, but this funding is not adequate, she said: “They’re stealing from other programs, in essence, to do this.”

Schools may use funds under Title I or Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and libraries may use funds available under the Museum and Library Services Act, to cover the cost of the new mandate.

The law also directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to evaluate whether currently available commercial filtering software adequately addresses the needs of schools and libraries.

The ACLU vowed to challenge the law in court. Because filtering programs can be so restrictive and overreaching, the group said, these programs significantly reduce the amount and diversity of speech and information available to individuals.

“This is the first time since the development of the local, free public library in the 19th century that the federal government has sought to require censorship in every single town and hamlet in America,” ACLU’s Hansen said. “More than 100 years of local control of libraries and the strong tradition of allowing adults to decide for themselves what they want to read is being casually set aside.”

Supporters believe the law will withstand a court challenge. “We drafted it to make sure it was constitutional,” said John Albaugh, chief of staff for Rep. Istook.

The ACLU is “going to have show it’s unconstitutional,” said Craig Wood, a partner at the McGuire Woods law firm in Charlottesville, Va. He thinks it’s a long shot. “The federal government for a long time has used federal financial aid to control local policy.”

In protest to the law, the civil liberties group Peacefire, which has found that several dozen web sites of candidates for Congress have been blocked by what it calls “censorware,” has posted software on its web site that it claims will disable most popular filtering software systems.

N2H2 Inc., the leading provider of filtering solutions to K-12 districts and creator of the Bess filtering system, has created a new web resource called FilteringInfo.org to help schools and libraries understand the new filtering legislation, according to Jim O’Halloran, N2H2’s director of product marketing.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology to improve K-12 learning, has developed a web site, called “Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse,” that helps school leaders understand their technological options for managing the content that students obtain over the internet.

Links:

White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org/

Sen. John McCain
http://www.senate.gov/~mccain

Sen. Rick Santorum
http://www.senate.gov/~santorum

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

McGuire Woods Law Firm
http://www.mcguirewoods.com

Peacefire
http://www.peacefire.org

Filtering Info
http://www.filteringinfo.org

Safe Guarding the Wired Schoolhouse
http://www.safewiredschools.org