IT Infrastructure

High Court Mulls Arguments On Library Internet-Filter Law

By Mark Walsh — March 12, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Public libraries have the same discretion to limit access to Internet pornography on their computers as librarians have when deciding which books to add to their collections, the Bush administration told the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

“The First Amendment does not require librarians to sponsor the viewing of pornography,” Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson told the justices March 5. He argued in support of a federal law that requires public libraries receiving federal technology money to install filtering software to block children from viewing sexually explicit Web sites.

But the American Library Association contends it is unconstitutional for the federal government to force public libraries to use the filters, which it says block much constitutionally protected speech yet fail to block some pornography sites.

“The federal government has no business using its spending power ... to push librarians away from using their professional judgment,” Paul M. Smith, a lawyer representing the library association and others who challenged the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, known as CIPA, argued before the high court.

The law applies to libraries and schools that receive so-called federal E-rate funding, as well as a few other forms of federal technology money. The legal challenge was confined to the law’s requirements for public libraries.

A special three- judge federal district court in Philadelphia last year struck down the law as it applies to public libraries, ruling that Web-filtering software often blocks content containing protected speech and thus violates the First Amendment rights of library patrons.

The law remains in force for public and private schools with federally subsidized Internet connections in their libraries and classrooms. Schools applying for federal technology aid must certify they are in compliance with the law, which requires filters to block obscenity, child pornography, and other material deemed harmful to minors, such as sexually explicit Web sites that might be lawful for adults to view.

While public libraries are the main issue in United States v. American Library Association (Case No. 02-361), several justices expressed reservations during the oral arguments last week about the potential implications of the law’s requirements for schools.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested he was concerned about the public libraries’ argument that Internet connections in libraries create a “designated public forum” meriting First Amendment protection. Under that theory, students using Internet-linked computers in schools might merit the same First Amendment protection, he suggested.

“So [an] elementary school has to let the worst possible pornography into the school?” he asked Mr. Smith.

“The constitutional analysis may well come out differently with respect to young children,” Mr. Smith said.

Legal Juggling

In the public library context, one central argument of the law’s challengers is that in an effort to protect children from sexually explicit material, whether they seek it out or stumble upon it accidentally, the law goes too far in infringing the free-speech rights of adults to receive lawful information.

Commercial Web filters typically “overblock” information, the district court found. One filter blocked such sites as the Republican National Committee’s Web site, a teen-health site about sexually transmitted disease, and a site about juggling, according to court papers.

And while adults may theoretically ask librarians to disable the Web filters, it is often impractical to do so, and such requests come with a stigma, Mr. Smith told the justices.

“You’re forced to go up to the librarian and say, ‘Please turn off the smut filter,’ ” he said.

The comments of at least five justices appeared to be supportive of the federal government’s arguments. But Solicitor General Olson also faced some skeptical members of the court.

“It seems that an inevitable price of this is blocking more than the statute requires,” Justice David H. Souter said. He added that he was concerned that public librarians do not have much, if any, control over what sites get blocked because those decisions are made by the company that develops the filtering software.

“At least when [a library] makes a decision not to stock a book, it knows what it has decided not to do,” Justice Souter said.

“Any system,” Mr. Olson said, “is going to involve some overblocking or underblocking.”

A decision in the case is expected by late June.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

IT Infrastructure Internet on School Buses: FCC Eyes E-Rate Change to Expand Access
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal that would allow the use of federal E-rate funding for Wi-Fi in school buses.
2 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in the Texas school system.
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
IT Infrastructure Stopping Cyberattacks Is Top Priority for Ed-Tech Leaders. But Many Underestimate the Risk
Most K-12 district tech leaders rate common cybersecurity threats as just low or medium risk, survey shows.
4 min read
Images shows a symbolic lock on a technical background.
iStock/Getty
IT Infrastructure Spotlight Spotlight on Infrastructure Modernization
This Spotlight will help you grasp the reality of school infrastructure, parent privacy concerns, watchdog recommendations and more.
IT Infrastructure The Infrastructure Bill Includes Billions for Broadband. What It Would Mean for Students
Students who struggle to access the internet at home may get some relief through $65 billion in funding for broadband, approved by Congress in the new infrastructure bill.
2 min read
Chromebooks, to be loaned to students in the Elk Grove Unified School District, await distribution at Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove, Calif., on April 2, 2020.
Even as school-issued devices such as Chromebooks, shown above, have proliferated in the pandemic, many students still lack internet access at home, putting them at a disadvantage for completing homework assignments.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP