In the latest chapter in the debate over the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the U. S. Supreme Court on Nov. 12 said it will decide whether the government can restrict internet surfing at public libraries.

Whichever way it goes, the high court’s ruling will not have a direct bearing on schools. But the decision could influence whether free-speech advocates mount a subsequent challenge to CIPA as it pertains to school computers, experts believe.

In the current case, the court will resolve whether federal eRate funding can be stripped from libraries that don’t install filters on computers to block sexually explicit web sites. This is the third case to reach the justices pitting free-speech concerns against efforts to shield children from online pornography.

The decision would affect more than 14 million people a year who use public library computers to do research, send and receive eMail, and—in some cases—log onto adult sites.

A three-judge federal panel in Pennsylvania ruled last spring that CIPA violates the Constitution’s First Amendment because the filtering programs also block sites on politics, health, science, and other nonpornographic topics.

The judges recommended less restrictive ways to control internet use, such as requiring parental consent before minors are allowed to log in on an unfiltered computer or having a parent monitor a child’s web use.

“The filtering turns the internet into something fit for a 5-year-old, and not even that. It blocks enormous amounts of protected speech,” said Charles Sims, a First Amendment lawyer in New York. “Congress can’t get it right.”

Lawmakers have passed three child protection laws since 1996, but the Supreme Court struck down the first and blocked the second from taking effect. Those dealt with regulations on web site operators. Legislators tried a new approach with the 2000 law, arguing that it should be able to regulate government property.

“The government has more authority when it’s controlling the purse strings than when it’s deciding what people can do with private funds and private property,” said Eugene Volokh, a conservative constitutional expert at UCLA Law School.

Still, Volokh predicts the government will lose as the high court again grapples with the balance between protecting children and preserving free speech. The court has been very protective of First Amendment rights, he pointed out.

The Bush administration said in its filings that libraries are not required to have X-rated movies and pornographic magazines and shouldn’t have to offer access to pornography on their computers.

The law is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, and other free-speech advocacy groups.

“The public library is for everybody. That’s why it’s called public,” Barbara Gloriod, a librarian in Washington for more than 20 years, said Nov. 12 as patrons surfed the internet nearby on computers without filters. “Filters are just not good enough. They don’t filter out all the bad and they do filter out some of the good.”

Congress knew the latest law would be challenged and directed any appeals to go straight to the Supreme Court after a trial before a three-judge panel.

The Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it. The court said the law violated free-speech rights because it would keep material from adults who have a right to see it.

This year the court upheld part of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which required web sites to collect credit card numbers or other proof of age before allowing internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors. But justices did not rule on the law’s constitutionality, and the government was barred from enforcing it.

The CIPA case is United States v. American Library Association, 02-361.

Links:

Supreme Court
http://www.supremecourtus.gov

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

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

Justice Department
http://www.usdoj.gov