Supreme Court hears arguments in Internet filtering case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Theconstitutionality of requiring Internet filters in public libraries is in thehands of the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments were heard today in thecase U.S. v. American Library Association.The case challenges theconstitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, whichrequires public libraries and schools to install “technology protectionmeasures” on their computers to block pornography as well as material thatis obscene and harmful to minors in order to received federal technology funds.The funding includes discounts of up to 90 percent on the purchase of Internetaccess.While this case specifically challenges the requirement offilters in public libraries, the decision will likely affect whether plaintiffswill come forward to challenge the filtering requirements placed on publicschools.Children’s Internet Protection Act was unanimously declaredunconstitutional by a special three-judge federal appellate court inPhiladelphia last spring. Their argument said that the law induced publiclibraries to violate the First Amendment rights of their patrons as a conditionof receiving federal funding. The judges of the Court of Appeals for theThird Circuit also based their decision on the inability of filters to blockonly the material restricted under the statue. In the decision, Chief JudgeEdward Becker said, “CIPA will necessarily block access to a substantialamount of speech whose suppression serves no legitimate governmentinterest.”At the oral arguments, the Justices’ line of questioningfor Solicitor General Theodore Olson, arguing on behalf of the government, andattorney Paul Smith, arguing on behalf of the libraries, indicated that theCourt may be receptive to the argument that the filters are not yet technicallycapable of blocking only materials targeted by the law.Justice SandraDay O’Connor admitted in one of her questions to Smith that the filteringsoftware is “imperfect.” Justice David H. Souter alsoquestioned Olson about how the government can expect librarians to agree to usefiltering programs, when unlike in book selection, they will not have access toa list of the materials they are rejecting because most of the filteringsoftware makers refuse to disclose a list of sites their productblocks.The Court, and especially Justice Stephen G. Breyer did challengeSmith’s argument that library computers should be considered designatedpublic forums, thus giving them strong First Amendmentprotections.Justice Breyer questioned whether this rationale could beextended to computers in public school libraries, an argument he hinted he wouldnot support.Smith answered that the argument could be extended to schoollibraries, but said, “The constitutional analysis may come out differentlywith respect to very young children.”After the arguments, Smithreiterated the American Library Association’s position that locallibraries should decide what measures, if any, are necessary to limit Internetaccess in their community and that the federal government should not threatenthe library’s access to federal subsidies. “In times oftight budgets, we’re concerned that the budget people and not thelibrarians will make the decision to filter,” Smith said.He alsostressed that the filters block protected speech. He specifically referred toWeb sites with information on sexuality and safe sex practices. “These arethings that teen-agers need to research,” Smithsaid.Seventeen-year-old Emma Rood, a plaintiff in the case, also sharedher concerns about the law’s effect on minors. She said that when she wasstruggling to understand her sexuality she found support and information on theInternet, which she was able to access at her local public library. If the Courtupheld the law, that information and tens of thousands of other sites may be offlimits to minors.This is the government’s third attempt to writelegislation to shield children from pornography on the Internet. Adecision may be handed down before the Court’s recess in July.

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