ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Reject Law Mandating Internet Censorship in Libraries

March 5, 2003 12:00 am


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WASHINGTON – In a landmark case being argued before the Supreme Court today, the American Civil Liberties Union is urging the Justices to reject a law that would force libraries to censor constitutionally protected online speech by adults as well as children.

At issue is 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 that censor a wide range of valuable material for adults and minors. The ACLU and the American Library Association both filed challenges to the law; the cases have been consolidated for today’s argument.

“The lower court described in detail just how flawed these Internet blocking programs are,” said Chris Hansen, an ACLU Senior Staff Attorney who argued the case in the lower court on behalf of librarians, library patrons and web content providers from around the country. “We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree that the government cannot force adults to use technology that routinely blocks access to a wide range of valuable web sites.”

Last May, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia agreed with arguments made by the ACLU that blocking programs cannot effectively screen out only material deemed “harmful to minors.” The court called the software a “blunt instrument,” adding that “the problems faced by manufacturers and vendors of filtering software are legion.”

The court supported its ruling with over 100 pages of detailed findings of fact, which established that “at least tens of thousands” of web pages are wrongly blocked by the programs, including web sites for the Knights of Columbus, a Christian orphanage in Honduras and several political candidates.

Significantly, the Philadelphia court cited the experience of library patrons who said that if the law had been in place they would not have been able to access socially valuable material on a library computer. Seventeen-year-old Emma Rood, who attended today’s argument, told the lower court that the law would have blocked her from finding information about human sexuality at her local library.

Others who testified in the lower court and were also present at today’s arguments include:

  • Dr. Jonathan Bertman, creator of AfraidtoAsk.com, which offers information on highly sensitive, personal or controversial medical topics;
  • Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard researcher whose research shows that blocking software improperly censors “G-rated” Internet content and fails to censor inappropriate websites; and
  • Ginnie Cooper, former director of Multnomah County (Oregon) Library.

The ACLU noted in its legal brief to the Court that Congress approved the censorship law even after its own 18-member panel set up to study ways to protect children online rejected blocking software because of the risk that “protected, harmless, or innocent speech would be accidentally or inappropriately blocked.” The chairman of the panel, Donald Telage, told the Wall Street Journal that “not even the most conservative members of the commission felt that [blocking] was the road to go down.”

Attorneys in the ACLU case are Hansen and Ann Beeson of the national ACLU; Stefan Presser of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Chuck Sims, a volunteer attorney with the law firm Proskauer Rose in New York City; and Scott Asphaug, Multnomah County Attorney.

A Web feature on the ACLU case, including links to legal documents, special reports and other background, is online at /Cyber-Liberties/Cyber-Liberties.cfm?ID=12017&c=55

The consolidated cases are U.S. v. Multnomah County Library et al. and U.S. v. American Library Association, No. 02-361.

The ACLU’s brief is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/ala_brief.pdf

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