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Government, librarians face off over computer access

Supreme Court to hear arguments Wednesday

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

Supreme Court to hear arguments Wednesday

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Emma Rood, 13, visited her local library in 1999 for a very important, but very personal, journey of self-discovery.

"I was using the Internet to do research, seeking resources prior to my coming out" as a lesbian, Rood said.

"It was very useful to me," said the Portland, Oregon, resident, because she was uncomfortable using her home computer. "I was not ready to talk about this with my parents."

Rood found the information and emotional outreach she was looking for, but she fears a new law could hurt teenagers in a similar situation.

Now the Supreme Court, in a case being argued Wednesday, will decide whether a federal law aimed at protecting children from "adult material" on the Internet violates free speech and access to information.

Congress hopes the third time is the charm in efforts to regulate access to what some consider smut online. Three bills on the issue have been passed since 1996, with the Supreme Court striking down one and blocking enforcement of the second.

The third law, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), was signed in 2000. It would bar federal funds and discounts for computer technology to any public library that did not install filtering software.

'One-size-fits-all approach to a complicated problem'

Rood, along with library groups, sued, claiming the use of filtering software was censorship and an ineffective tool for keeping pornography away from children. Many "blocked" Web sites included religious sites and public health forums, including those dealing with breast cancer.

Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, gave another example.

"Here in this state, we have a Middlesex County," she said. "Some filtering software would block access to sites involving the county because it has 'sex' in its name.

"This is a one-size-fits-all approach to a complicated problem," Tumulty said. "It's an extremely broad-reaching law that doesn't take into account what should be a local community approach."

A federal court struck down CIPA last May. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the government said the law balances the use of filters with First Amendment concerns.

"The court's ruling eliminates the protection Congress adopted to ensure that the assistance it provides to libraries to facilitate access to the wealth of valuable information on the Internet does not simultaneously enable access to the enormous amount of illegal and harmful pornography that pervades the Internet," the government's appeal said.

The Bush administration, which will argue its case before the Supreme Court, says filtering software is constitutional because libraries routinely make decisions on what material to stock. Libraries are not required to keep books on sadomasochism or issues of Penthouse magazine, and should not be allowed to include pornography online with public computers, officials said.

14.3 million people use library computers

Many Americans with no home access to the Internet turn to libraries to go online. The American Library Association said an estimated 95 percent of public libraries in the United States provide Internet access, to 14.3 million people total. The federal government gave libraries $217 million in grants and discounted computer services in 2001.

Public libraries throughout New Jersey have taken several approaches, including heavy parental involvement, to the question of inappropriate content online. Some libraries use no filtering software, and some have made selected Web sites available to children. Such sites are screened by the library for offensive content.

At the Paterson Free Public Library, about 20 miles west of New York, director Cynthia Czesak has installed software-filtering devices only on computers in the children's area. The rest of the library uses a system that matches birth date information on a user's library card to keep children from accessing sites intended for adults.

A more expensive system at a nearby library uses "smart card" technology, with a computer chip controlling five levels of access to the Internet and filtering out chat rooms, gambling and cult sites, and pornography.

"You can have more sophisticated systems," Czesak said, "but for a community like ours, the funds aren't there. That's why we strongly believe parents should be involved in monitoring their children's activity. We can't always be active caregivers, watching their children's computer use."

'Taxpayer-funded peep show'

Groups like the Washington-based Family Research Council say the filtering law is not a government mandate.

"Libraries used to be a safe haven for learning, and in many places have become a taxpayer-funded peep show," said Kristin Hansen of FRC. "Parents know this and their concern is starting to grow. Are their voices being heard in their communities?"

Librarians say teaching children about proper use of the Internet involves more than blocking pornography. Hate groups, Web sites with misleading or inaccurate information, or sites that deal with disturbing topics like genocide or terrorism can also harm children.

"We have to take into account their needs and that of all library patrons. We're a unique public community resource," Tumulty said.

For Emma Rood, now a 17-year-old college sophomore, the issues are choice and responsibility.

"I'm sure [the bill's authors] have good intentions, but they're doing this in an entirely wrong way. It's like doing surgery with a chainsaw," she said.

Rood said gay teenagers have an especially difficult time.

"For many of us, there was an acute sense of isolation, it was a big secret, you can't tell anyone, and you fear being harassed."

Before she started her Internet search, the Multomah County Public Library disabled the filtering software so she could visit relevant sites.

"It provided easy access, and mostly accurate information. Most important, I could communicate with others," Rood said.

She eventually became friends, via e-mail, with other teens who were coming out.

Rood plans to attend Wednesday's arguments.

"The whole process has been exciting, but vaguely surreal," she said.

The case is U.S. v. American Library Association (02-0361).


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