High court upholds filters for Internet in libraries

WASHINGTON (BP)--The U.S. Supreme Court finally has affirmed a congressional attempt to protect children from online pornography.

In a 6-3 decision issued June 23, the high court upheld a federal law, the Children's Internet Protection Act, requiring public libraries that receive government Internet discounts to install filters on their computers to block pornography.

Pro-family advocates applauded the decision, which ended a pattern of federal courts striking down laws designed to protect children from Internet porn.

The ruling reversed an opinion last year by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down a portion of the Children's Internet Protection Act.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the ruling a "triumph for decency and for society's recognition of its obligation to protect children. Too many court decisions in recent years have indicated we have become a society that too often places a greater value on an adult's so-called right to view whatever he wants to view more than a society that honors our obligation to protect our children from damaging material. This decision is hopefully a sign that this dangerous trend is turning around. However, any optimism in that regard should be accompanied by the caution that this decision revealed a court that is still deeply divided on this issue."

Jan LaRue, Concerned Women for America's chief counsel, said the ruling was a "win for kids, librarians, library patrons and taxpayers. The court soundly rejected the inane idea that the First Amendment requires taxpayers to provide access to illegal porn in a library."

CIPA, which Congress approved in late 2000, requires libraries receiving federal Internet subsidies to install technology to screen out obscenity and child pornography on all computers and to block soft-core porn and other harmful material on terminals used by children.

A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia had said in its 2002 opinion the law is a content-based restriction on what constitutes a public forum, Internet access at a public library. The use of filters is not narrowly tailored to advance the government's interest in restricting the distribution of illegal pornography, the panel ruled. It also said the leading filters block thousands of pages of constitutionally protected speech.

In the high court's opinion, however, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said Internet access does not qualify as a public forum. "A public library does not acquire Internet terminals in order to create a public forum for Web publishers to express themselves, any more than it collects books in order to provide a public forum for the authors of books to speak," Rehnquist wrote.

CIPA does not violate library patrons' First Amendment rights and "is a valid exercise of Congress' spending power," the chief justice wrote. "To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance."

In response to the argument many legal sites are blocked by filters, Rehnquist said libraries may disable filters and unblock any wrongly blocked sites. CIPA permits the disabling of filters for "bona fide research or other lawful purposes." The Third Circuit contended some patrons may be too embarrassed to make such a request, but the chief justice wrote the Constitution "does not guarantee the right to acquire information at a public library without any risk of embarrassment."

Joining Rehnquist in the court's judgment were Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Kennedy and Breyer agreed in the judgment but did not sign on to Rehnquist's opinion, filing separate concurring opinions instead.

John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. "The abridgement of speech is equally obnoxious whether a rule like this one is enforced by a threat of penalties or by a threat to withhold a benefit," Stevens wrote.

The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union led the challenge to CIPA.

The ALA, a private trade association that promotes freedom of access for children to all library materials, said it was disappointed in the ruling and sounded a defiant tone. "We're going to suggest to libraries that they post a sign that says, 'Filters are required, but if you want unfiltered access, just ask us and we will turn off the filter,'" said Judith Krug, director of ALA's office for intellectual freedom, according to Library Journal.

The Third Circuit's 2002 decision on CIPA continued a pattern in which federal courts invalidated congressional attempts to protect children from online indecency. The Supreme Court struck down a 1996 measure, the Communications Decency Act, which barred online computer distribution of obscene and indecent material to children less than 18 years of age.

In 2002, the high court invalidated portions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, a 1996 federal law that expanded a ban on child porn to include images that appear to be of children under 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Less than a month later, the justices returned to the Third Circuit for reconsideration a case involving the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 federal measure that bans commercial websites from making sexually explicit material available to minors.

Problems in public libraries with Internet access to obscenity and child pornography have become public knowledge increasingly in recent years. A Family Research Council study in 2000 found more than 2,000 reports of patrons, many of them children, accessing obscenity and child pornography in public libraries. That was based on research done in which only 29 percent of libraries complied with Freedom of Information Act requests.

The FRC study also found reports of adults exposing children to online pornography, adults and minors engaging in sexual acts at computer terminals and attempts by adults at molestation.

In March, 12 librarians at the downtown Minneapolis library filed a federal lawsuit seeking $450,000 apiece in damages and an improved work environment. Their suit came after the library failed to deal adequately with what they described as years of undesired exposure to graphic sexual images, as well as harassment by men viewing Internet porn sites. The librarians said in their suit these patrons have engaged in sexual acts while viewing the material, threatened them and stalked some of them outside the workplace, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

The case is United States v. American Library Association.

The court is expected to issue a ruling June 26 on a Texas law barring homosexual sodomy.


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