Mandating internet filters in public libraries puts unconstitutional restraints on free speech and amounts to censorship, librarians testified before a federal court March 25.

Librarians and free-speech advocates say the filtering technology used to block internet pornography is imperfect and inadvertently blocks important information on health, sexuality, and social issues.

“We would, for the first time, be in the position to potentially block out constitutionally protected speech for all our patrons—adults, children, and staff,” said Candace Morgan, associate director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Washington state, in testimony before the court.

The American Library Association (ALA), the American Civil Liberties Union, and others are challenging the constitutionally of the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000. This law, known as CIPA, requires schools and libraries to block pornography as a condition for receiving eRate discounts—federal money to pay for internet access and internal wiring.

The lawsuit challenges only the requirement placed on libraries, which have to comply by July 2002. The government contends that the law does not censor libraries, because they can simply decline to accept funding.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia before a three-judge federal court panel began March 25 without opening statements and is expected to last nine days.

“Instead of relying on filtering technology, we should be educating children,” said ALA’s Judith Krug before the trial began. “It’s not only learning the difference between right and wrong, but how to use information wisely. … There are no quick fixes.”

Other plaintiffs include the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Ore., which wants to offer patrons a choice between filtered and unfiltered internet access, and Jeffrey L. Pollock, a Republican Congressional candidate who supported the law until he discovered that his web site was blocked by a popular filtering product.

The law also presents other practical problems, including how to set up systems that can “read” library cards to tell whether a child or an adult is using a computer and how to define what the legislation calls “bona fide” research, said Ginnie Cooper, director of Multnomah County Public Library, serving 500,000 people in the Portland, Ore., region.

“There are some 5-year-olds whose parents do not want them to know where babies come from, and there are some [whose parents] do,” Cooper testified. “We don’t try to presume the values of parents.”

The law’s supporters say that if printed pornographic materials are not in a library’s collection, there is no reason the materials should be available to library patrons online. They also say filtering software has vastly improved since the measure was passed, making fewer mistakes and allowing librarians or administrators to unblock sites blocked in error.

“They’re still not perfect, but neither are safety belts, and we use them,” Miriam Moore of the Family Research Council told the Associated Press. “It’s a preventive measure.”

Critics of the law say they shouldn’t be forced to pay for flawed technology that hinders more than it helps.

Krug cited examples of filters blocking web sites for golfer Fred Couples, as well as American Indian groups because of references to peyote—a plant used in native religious ceremonies but banned in many states for its hallucinogenic properties.

Filters can be set to block sites that appear on a “denial list” or contain objectionable words. Some filters also can block eMail and chat-room messages.

Some pornography still gets through unless the filters are set to allow access only to pre-approved sites, but that approach also rejects more legitimate content.

Congress first tried to combat online porn in 1996 by making it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it. The Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997, saying it was too vague and trampled on adults’ rights.

A year later, Congress narrowed the restrictions to commercial web sites and defined indecency more specifically. Sites must collect a credit card number or other proof of age before allowing internet users to view material deemed “harmful to minors.”

A federal appeals court has barred enforcement of the 1998 law, saying the standards are so broad and vague that the law is probably unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue this year.

Like the latest lawsuit, challenges to the 1996 and 1998 laws began at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

Links:

American Library Association’s CIPA page
http://www.ala.org/cipa

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

ACLU’s Web-Blocking Trial page
http://www.aclu.org/features/f032001a.html

Family Research Council
http://www.frc.org/porn.cfm

eSchool News CIPA Survival Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.com/features/cipa/