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Supreme Court affirms use of computer filters in public libraries

From Bill Mears
CNN's Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a legal balancing act, the Supreme Court has decided Congress is allowed to protect children from pornography on public library computers, a move the majority said does not infringe on the free speech rights of others.

The 6-3 ruling on Monday by the justices upheld a federal law that allows the federal government to withhold money from libraries that won't install blocking devices. Libraries had complained that the law turned them into censors, but they lost their First Amendment challenge.

This was Congress' third attempt to regulate access to online smut. Three bills had been passed since 1996. The Supreme Court struck down the first and blocked enforcement of the second.

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

A federal court struck down CIPA last May.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, "Because public libraries have traditionally excluded pornographic material from their other collections, Congress could reasonably impose a parallel limitation on its Internet assistance programs."

But in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said, "A statutory blunderbuss that mandates this vast amount of overblocking abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment." Stevens was supported by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Filtering is censorship, teenager warns

Among those who brought suit against the law is Emma Rood, a Portland, Oregon, resident who, as a 13-year-old in 1999, visited her local library.

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

"It was very useful to me," she said, because said 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. She fears the new law could hurt teenagers in a similar situation.

She and library groups claim the use of filtering software is censorship, and in any case is an ineffective tool to keep pornography away from children. Among Web sites blocked by the software are religious and public health forums, including those dealing with breast cancer.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the Bush's administration's top lawyer before the Supreme Court, argued that libraries routinely choose which reading material they keep on hand. "The government says libraries should be allowed to make the same decisions about the Internet they have voluntarily made over the years with books," he said. "This law does not regulate speech."

Olson said almost no public libraries offer adult magazines and X-rated movies to patrons, and the same idea should apply to accessing porn on the Internet.

Local libraries have used own filtering tactics

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

Local libraries throughout New Jersey have taken a variety of approaches, based on local input, including heavy parental involvement. Some libraries use no filtering software, and some give children access only to pre-selected Web sites screened by the library for non-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 available to 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, as well as pornography.

"You can have more sophisticated systems," said Czesak, "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."

The case is U.S. v. American Library Association case no. 02-0361.

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