The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set a July 1, 2004, deadline for libraries to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires libraries to install anti-pornography filters in exchange for federal funding. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the controversial law does not violate the free speech rights of Americans.
CIPA was enacted in December 2000, in part to protect minors from access to Internet pornography. It requires schools and libraries to use the filtering software to shield minors from adult material but, because it called for adults to get permission to access certain information, it raised the ire of the civil libertarians and library groups, who promptly challenged the decision by going to court.
The June Supreme Court ruling overturned a federal appeals decision that rejected CIPA as a violation of the First Amendment. The lower court ruled that the use of filtering software in public libraries blocked access to Web sites that contained substantial amounts of protected speech.
The decision was a major victory for federal lawmakers, who have made three attempts to curb children’s access to online pornography. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997 as unconstitutional, saying the CDA “place(d) an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech.”
Congress followed that defeat with the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which required commercial Web site operators to use credit cards or other adult access systems to prevent minors from viewing the material. The Supreme Court found that law was too broad in scope for practical enforcement.
CIPA, on the other hand, focused on requiring libraries to install anti-pornography filters. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association filed twin-lawsuits last to have the law tossed out on First Amendment and due-process grounds.
The Philadelphia appeals court sided with the civil liberties groups, saying it was concerned that library patrons might be too embarrassed or lose their right to anonymity because the CIPA law required that they seek permission to have the filtering software removed.
The Supreme Court dismissed those concerns and additionally ruled that the filters do not turn libraries into online censors. The Court ultimately ruled the government’s interest in protecting children from exposure to sexually inappropriate material outweighed the rights of adult library patrons.
The FCC, which is charged with enforcing CIPA, said because of the lengthy court battle, it was appropriate to give libraries a year to comply with the law.