Internet filters ruled constitutional

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government did not violate the First Amendment by requiring public libraries to place Internet filters on their computers in order to receive some federal funding. 

The decision will likely make it more difficult for those who may want to contest the law that requires Internet filters on public school computers.  

The ruling handed down by the Court stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the American Library Association to combat the implementation of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, signed by President Clinton in 2002. Under CIPA, public libraries and schools are required to install filtering technology to block pornography, obscenity and other material that is “harmful to minors” in order to receive federal funding for Internet access and computer equipment. 

The library association claimed that filtering software, while attempting to block harmful information, blocks a significant amount of information that is harmful to no one. The association proposed less restrictive means, giving more responsibility to the librarians or the patrons themselves. 

In its 6-3 decision in U.S. v. American Library Association, the Court majority said that Internet filters should be treated no differently than decisions by libraries to exclude books or publications because they contain pornographic or inappropriate material.

The opinion said that the law does not infringe on the rights of Web users because CIPA permits adult patrons to ask a librarian to disable the filter or unblock a particular site for legitimate research purposes. 

Justices, both those who concurred and dissented with the ruling, cited the “compelling” nature of the government’s intentions to protect minors from being exposed to potentially harmful material on the Internet. This suggests that anyone contesting the school provisions of the law might have an even more difficult time making a successful legal challenge. 

But like a library, a school administrator or supervisor, may disable a filter on a school computer for use by an adult for bona fide research purposes. The law defines a minor as being anyone under the age of 17.

Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there are flaws in CIPA that were not addressed in the decision by the Court. 

Beeson said it is unclear whether high school students, both minors, and students 17 and older are entitled to a system that allows them to ask that filters be removed from wrongfully blocked sites. Some filtering technology has blocked information about sex education and family planning.

Frank DiFulvio, press officer for the American Library Association, said he thinks high school students 17 and older who are denied access to constitutionally protected material may be able to bring a lawsuit contesting filters.

The U.S. Department of Justice would not comment on whether or not students 17 and older should be able to ask a high school administrator or supervisor to unblock a site or turn off a filter to access information. 

Susan Aspey, deputy press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said it is the responsibility of each state or local board of education authority to set regulations for public schools to comply with CIPA.

At Davenport Central High School in Iowa, students are able to request that a site be unblocked, and in most cases, the site is unblocked within 24 hours, said Elna Williams, Davenport’s instructional media specialist.

At the three high schools in the Davenport Community School District, the media center and the journalism program each have a computer that does not use filtering software; however, a student’s computer activity must be monitored by an adult regardless of the student’s age. 

Despite the use of the school’s Internet filter, Williams said schools should teach students to be responsible when surfing the Web.

“Children can go very quickly to sites that are inappropriate, even while under supervision,” said Williams. “In many cases it is a matter of teaching them how to search properly.”

Ann Visser, yearbook and newspaper adviser at Pella Community High School in Iowa and president of the Journalism Education Association, said her school district has been supportive of its students’ needs to access all levels of information.

However, Visser said she feels filters do not belong in public schools.

“I still have problems with taking away my students’ intellectual right to make a decision about whether or not they should be on [a Web site] or not,” she said.n

CASE: U.S. v. American Library Association, Inc., 123 S.Ct. 2297 (2003).