Supreme Court hears argument in library Internet filtering case

Theconstitutionality of requiring Internet filters in public libraries is in thehands of the U.S. Supreme Court after it heard oral arguments March 5 in a casespearheaded by the American Library Association.

The casechallenges the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act(CIPA), which requires public libraries and schools to install “technologyprotection measures” on their computers to block pornography as well as materialthat is obscene and “harmful to minors” in order to receive federal technologyfunds.

CIPA was unanimously declared unconstitutional by a specialthree-judge federal appellate court in Philadelphia last spring. That court saidthe law induced public libraries to violate the First Amendment rights of theirpatrons as a condition of receiving federal funding. The judges based theirdecision, in part, on the inability of filters to block only the materialrestricted under the statue. The found that current filters block access to a”substantial amount of speech whose suppression serves no legitimate governmentinterest.”

At the oral arguments before the Supreme Court this month, thejustices’ line of questioning indicated that the Court may be particularlyreceptive to such an argument, with a number of justices appearing to agree thatthe filters are not yet technically capable of blocking only materials targetedby the law.

Justice David H. Souter also asked how the government canexpect librarians to agree to use filtering programs, when unlike in bookselection, they will not have access to a list of the materials they arerejecting because most of the filtering software makers refuse to disclose alist of the sites their product blocks.

However, Justice Stephen G.Breyer challenged the library’s argument that library computers should beconsidered designated public forums, a legal classification that would provideexceptionally strong First Amendment protection. He questioned whether thisrationale could be extended to computers in public school libraries, an argumenthe hinted he would not support.

Afterwards, seventeen-year-old Emma Rood,a plaintiff in the case, said she was concerned about the law’s effect onminors. She said that when she was struggling to understand her sexuality shefound support and information on the Internet, which she was able to access ather local public library. If the Court upheld the law, that information and tensof thousands of other sites may be off limits to minors.

This is thegovernment’s third attempt to write legislation to shield children frompornography on the Internet.

A decision will likely be handed down beforethe Court’s recess in July.

SPLC View: While you can never be sure, ourguess is that the Court will probably strike down the public library filterprovisions in CIPA. While this case was limited to the requirement of filters inpublic libraries, the decision will likely affect whether plaintiffs will comeforward to challenge the filtering requirements placed on public schools. Basedon some of the questions and statements made by Supreme Court justices duringoral arguments in this case, it seems clear that challenging the law withrespect to its application to public schools will be much tougher.