Litigants Find Silver Lining in Web Filter Decision

A day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled anti-pornography filters in public libraries are not a free speech violation, the main litigants in the suit are expressing disappointment over the decision while noting the ruling minimized the law’s impact on adult users.

On a 6-3 vote, the Court backed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a law passed in December 2000 that requires any library receiving certain forms of federal aid to install Web “blocking” programs in hopes of keeping pornographic material from children using the public library’s Internet connection.

Shortly after Congress passed CIPA, the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits opposing the legislation, claiming it was a form of censorship because filtering software also can block legitimate content.

“Although we are disappointed that the Court upheld a law that is unequivocally a form of censorship, there is a silver lining. The Justices essentially rewrote the law to minimize its effect on adult library patrons,” said Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was joined in the majority opinion by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen Breyer wrote separate opinions upholding the law, noting that the protection of children outweighed the inconvenience of making adults ask for the filters to be disconnected.

Justice John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, claiming CIPA goes too far in restricting material in public libraries.

Kennedy’s opinion requires that filtering companies create filters that can be immediately and easily dismantled to meet the information needs of library users.

“The decision, however, is very narrow in that Justices Kennedy and Breyer did not join Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion, they only joined the judgment,” said Judith Krug, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Justices Kennedy and Breyer joined the judgment because they believe adult patrons need only ask the librarian to ‘please disable the filter’ and need not provide any reason for the request. In light of this, we expect libraries that decide they must accept filters to inform their patrons how easily the filters can be turned off.”

In the wake of the decision, the ALA called for full disclosure of “what sites filtering companies are blocking, who is deciding what is filtered and what criteria are being used.” According the ALA, “Findings of fact clearly show that filtering companies are not following legal definitions of ‘harmful to minors’ and ‘obscenity.’ Their practices must change.”

The ACLU’s Hansen said the Supreme Court interpretation that “on the request of an adult user, a librarian will unblock filtered material or disable the Internet software filter with significant delay,” leaves open future challenges to the law if libraries do not adopt an adequate unblocking system.

The ALA said it will seek information from filtering companies and then evaluate and share the information with public libraries. The group plans to explain how various products work, criteria to consider in selecting products and how to best use a given product in a public setting.

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