IT Infrastructure

ACLU, Library Association File Suits Against Internet-Filtering Law

By Andrew Trotter — March 28, 2001 5 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association launched a legal attack last week on a new federal law that would require schools and libraries to install technological devices—often called filters—to block minors from accessing pornographic images on the Internet.

But those lawsuits, even if successful, may not affect the law as it applies to schools, officials of both organizations said.

Schools and libraries that do not comply with the law would lose federal money for technology and federal E-rate discounts for telecommunications services.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act was passed by Congress in December as part of the fiscal 2001 appropriations bill for education and signed into law by President Clinton. It was opposed by national school, library, and civil liberties groups and supported by conservative religious and family-values groups. (“New Law Directs Schools To Install Internet Filtering Devices,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

By law, the Federal Communications Commission has until April 20 to issue regulations for carrying out the provisions, which should include deadlines schools and libraries must meet to certify that they are filtering students’ Internet access, or that they are taking steps to filter it. In the E-rate program, the deadlines could vary from this Oct. 28 through 2002 depending on individual circumstances.

District Policies

About 40 percent of school districts do not now use such filters, according to Quality Education Data Inc., a Denver-based market-research group that specializes in school technology surveys. But 95 percent of schools have policies governing the use of the Internet, some of which include use of filters, said Kari Arfstrom, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators.

“We feel this is a local decision, to be made at the community level, and that it’s an unfunded mandate” to require the filters, Ms. Arfstrom said.

The administrators’ group, which represents superintendents and other district- level officials, has taken no position on the two lawsuits; neither has EdLinC, a coalition of education and library groups, including the ALA, that lobbies for the E-rate program.

Other education groups have argued that it will be expensive to install and maintain filters, and that the filters have only limited effectiveness.

The two lawsuits, both filed March 20 in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, claim the law is unconstitutional.

“This law will result in preventing both adults and minors from accessing materials they are constitutionally entitled to access,” argued Christopher A. Hansen, a senior attorney for the ACLU.

“We believe [the law] is unconstitutional because it censors constitutionally protected speech from adult users. We believe this is a violation of the First Amendment,” concurred Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the ALA’s Washington office.

Supporters of the law struck back at the two groups.

“Because of the policies of the American Library Association, public libraries with unrestricted Internet access are virtual peep shows open to kids and funded by taxpayers,” Janet M. LaRue, the senior director of legal studies at the Washington-based Family Research Council, which describes itself as a pro-family public-policy organization, charged in a statement. “Pedophiles are using library Internet access to operate child-pornography Web sites and to stalk kids,” Ms. LaRue asserted.

Mr. Hansen said that if the court accepts the ACLU’s arguments, it could strike down the entire law. “If we win our case, it’s going to be harder to justify the use of blocking software in schools,” he said.

But, he added, both groups could win their suits without affecting the law’s application to public schools, because K-12 students have more limited First Amendment rights than those enjoyed by adults.

Content Ratings

Nancy Willard, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Technology in Education, in Eugene, Ore., who often advises school districts, said that a free rating system for Web sites, akin to the one used by the motion picture industry, might meet the law’s standard for a technological device.

The Internet Content Rating Association, or ICRA, a nonprofit organization based in Brighton, England, has a rating system in which Web site owners voluntarily label their sites, based on the presence of sex, nudity, violence, offensive language, and the site owner’s claim of the site’s artistic, medical, and child-appropriate nature. The system also reads the older, but similar, RSACi rating system, created by the now-defunct Recreational Software Advisory Council.

Mary Lou Kenny, the Olney, Md.-based director of the rating association in North America, said the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, the most widely used Web browser, can be set to recognize the ICRA and the RSACi ratings when the browser is pointed at Web sites that use them and also can deny users access to sites that have been chosen for blockage. She said she expects that the Netscape browser, which recognizes the RSACi ratings in its latest version, will incorporate the ICRA ratings in its next version, due out this summer.

Nearly 185,000 Web sites have been rated with either the ICRA or RSACi system, Ms. Kenny said. That number, however, is only a tiny fraction of existing Web sites.

No Third Party

But Ms. Kenny says parents and schools could prevent children from accessing a great deal of inappropriate material, without having a third party—a filtering company—make the decision about what material is or is not appropriate. And a free software program that ICRA will release later this year will allow school districts or other institutions to augment that protection by setting up their own lists of permitted and blocked sites.

“Voluntary rating obviously has a disadvantage— obviously not all sites will rate themselves,” Ms. Willard said. “But if you combine RCRAi with effective strategies that educators have been using, you will meet the requirements of the law and do a good job [of protecting children]—and it’s free,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as ACLU, Library Association File Suits Against Internet-Filtering Law

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