U.S. Senators Once Again Seek to Require Filtering Software in Schools and LIbraries

Congress is taking another stab at requiring public schools and libraries to install blocking software on computers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Sen. Ernest Hollings, R-Ariz., introduced The Children’s Internet Protection Act, S. 97, on Jan. 19. The Act provides that schools receiving federal funds for Internet hook-ups must install filtering software that keeps students from seeing material on the Internet that would be deemed “harmful to minors.” The Act requires the same thing of public libraries that receive federal funds.

According to the Act, a “school, school board, library or other authority” is responsible for determining what is “harmful to minors.”

McCain and Hollings introduced the Internet School Filtering Act last year which, instead of the “harmful to minors” standard, required schools to block access to material that was “inappropriate to minors.” That bill passed Congress by a vote of 98-0 last July and was attached to a large appropriations bill. However, the appropriations bill hit roadblocks in the House thus killing the filtering legislation.

Critics of the legislation say the legislation is unconstitutional.

“We don’t need Big Brother stepping in and mandating filtering,” said Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney for People for the American Way. “Local communities can make decisions for themselves, based on their individual needs, that are consistent with the Constitution.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee.

At this point it seems inevitable that some sort of school internet filtering legislation will make its way out of Congress and on to the President’s desk. The fact is, questions of constitutionality aside, no one dares vote against it.

That will leave it up to courts to determine whether or not such laws are constitutional. Unfortunately, terms such as “harmful to minors” are so vague as to defy any sort of meaningful or uniform definition, which is probably part of the reason why Congress specifically left that job to local schools and school boards. With little guidance or restriction placed on such bodies, you can be sure that sites such as those offering counseling to pregnant teens, information on birth control, support to gay teens or information on non-mainstream political or religious groups will be frequent targets. (Indeed, it was reported to us by an Ohio school that they could not reach the Student Press Law Center’s Web site because of blocking software installed on their school’s computer system.) Such filters could pose a special problem to student journalists who could find it difficult to use the Internet as an effective research tool for stories they may be covering.