ACLU challenges federal law requiring libraries to install Internet filters

PENNSYLVANIA — The American Civil Liberties Union fileda lawsuit March 20 on behalf of public libraries, library associations,library patrons and Web site creators around the country challenginga federal law that requires libraries receiving federal fundsto install Internet filtering software on their computers.

ACLU attorney Ann Beeson said the Children’s Internet ProtectionAct, also referred to as CHIPA, is a clear violation of FirstAmendment rights.

"CHIPA violates the First Amendment of both adults andminors to access protected speech in libraries across the country,"Beeson said.

The law, which was passed by Congress in December and is supposedto go into effect in April, requires schools and libraries thatreceive federal funds for computer and Internet technology toinstall "technology protection measures" on their computersto block material that is pornographic, obscene or harmful tominors.

"Harmful to minors" is defined under Title 18 ofthe U.S. Code as "any picture, image, graphic image fileor other visual depiction" that includes, among other things,sex and nudity and "lacks serious literary, artistic, political,or scientific value."

The ACLU is not challenging the part of the law mandating Internetfilters on school computers because the rules at schools are slightlydifferent, said ACLU attorney Christopher Hansen.

"If I were a high school student and I was sitting ina history class using a computer, it is perfectly acceptable forthe teacher to say I can’t go to a math Web site," Hansensaid. "It has nothing to do with sex, it has nothing to dowith violence, it has nothing to do with protecting children.It has to do with what’s appropriate in the classroom."

Although the ACLU is currently not challenging blocking softwareon school computers, Hansen said the software would have the sameeffect.

Critics of blocking systems say the programs are far from perfectand that they often fail to block all pornographic sites whileat the same time inadvertently blocking access to valuable sites.

The complaint filed by the ACLU lists X-Stop, CyberPatrol,SmartFilter, I-Gear and WebSense as examples of filtering softwarethat block protected speech. Among the sites that the complaintsays could be blocked by filtering software are,which provides information and advice about health care, and,a site that contains educational information about safer sex.Both organizations are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

CHIPA requires libraries to enforce the use of blocking softwareby both adults and minors when using computers to access the Internet.If they refuse, the libraries can lose their federal technologyfunding including the e-rate, a special discounted Internet accessrate for schools and libraries that was approved by Congress towiden the availability of the Internet.

Hansen said withholding federal funds from libraries that refuseto use the software is unfair.

"Suppose [the government] said they wouldn’t give youfederal money unless you carry only books by Republicans, or whitepeople or the Nazi party. The government should not be in theposition of telling local libraries what kinds of books can beput on their shelves. We think the same is true here."

Beeson said the enforcement of CHIPA will widen the "digitaldivide," the disparity that exists between those who haveaccess to the Internet and those who do not. According to a recentreport by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration,this disparity is growing wider, and whites are more likely tohave Internet access from their home than blacks or Latinos havefrom anywhere, including schools and libraries.

CHIPA is the government’s third attempt to pass a law protectingchildren from obscene material on the Internet. In 1996, Congresspassed the Communications Decency Act, which was struck down andfollowed by Children’s Online Protection Act, which a federaljudge ruled could not be enforced until a trial has been heldto determine its constitutionality.

  • The ACLU’s complaint in Multnomah County Public Libraryvs. United States of America is available on the ACLU’s Website at:

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