Web Filter Law To Be Challenged

PHILADELPHIA — Civil libertarians and librarians plan to go to court Tuesday to challenge a new U.S. law requiring libraries to use pornography-blocking Internet filters as a condition for receiving federal technology funds.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, which each plan to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, contend that the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, violates constitutional free-speech protections.

The law, which former President Bill Clinton signed in December as part of an appropriations bill and which goes into effect next month, aims to guard children against obscene or pornographic Web sites while they use library or school computers. It requires schools as well as libraries to install the filters in order to receive the funds.

“This is the third time that Congress has sought to regulate and/or stifle speech on the Internet. Twice the courts have beat it back,” Stefan Presser, legal director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania, told Dow Jones Newswires on Monday.

With 1996 and 1998 laws that aimed to protect minors from online pornography, Congress “tried to directly criminalize speech on the Internet,” Mr. Presser said. “Having failed in that endeavor, they’re now trying to use the power of the purse.”

The ACLU contends that linking public libraries’ federal funding to use of filtering technology on Internet terminals is unconstitutional and unworkable. The blocking technology significantly reduces the amount and diversity of speech and information available to library users who can’t afford their own computers and Internet service, the group says.

“The filters are very blunt,” Presser said. Not only do a number of “inappropriate sites” get past them, but “there are lots of important sites about health care that are going to be blocked even though the children want to do legitimate research.”

The American Library Association said earlier this year that the federal-funding sources affected by the law all help schools and libraries provide community access to the Internet so they can close the “digital divide” that makes Web service difficult for some poor Americans to obtain.
Filtering software can’t distinguish between illegal speech and constitutionally protected speech on the Internet, the group said.

Like the two previous, successful challenges to U.S. anti-Internet porn laws, this one is being filed in Philadelphia “because of the symbolic importance of the creation of the principle of free speech here,” Mr. Presser said.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, in Washington, said the CIPA is narrower than the previous Internet-porn laws and should withstand the constitutional challenge.
“The Supreme Court has recognized that there is a compelling interest in protecting children from obscenity and pornography,” he said.

As long as a library also provides an unfiltered computer for adult-only use, there’s nothing unconstitutional about requiring filters on terminals available to children, Mr. Sekulow said.

The ACLJ plans to file a court brief defending the law on behalf of a coalition of Congress members who supported it, he said. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. John S. McCain (R., Ariz.).

Individual librarians and patrons, including teenagers, as well as People for the American Way, are expected to join the ACLU and the ALA at a press conference Tuesday announcing the lawsuits.

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.