Most schools must still comply with a federal law requiring them to install filtering software to prevent children from viewing Internet pornography on school computers, despite a ruling that struck down the law as it applied to public libraries.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, requires both schools and public libraries receiving federal technology funding to equip their computers with the filters. But a special three-judge trial court in Philadelphia ruled unanimously on May 31 that the library provisions violate the First Amendment.
“The plaintiffs demonstrated that thousands of Web pages containing protected speech are wrongly blocked by the four leading filtering programs,” said the district court’s opinion in American Library Association v. United States.
The court struck down the library provisions and enjoined their enforcement. The Chicago- based American Library Association challenged those provisions on behalf of library patrons. The U.S. Justice Department is said to be weighing an appeal, which would be heard directly by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the Philadelphia ruling did not affect the CIPA provisions that impose obligations on schools applying for technology funds either under the federal E-rate program or under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“Schools need to understand that this was a challenge only to the [public] library portions of the statute,” said Leslie Harris, a lawyer who serves as policy counsel to the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based group for school technology leaders. “As of right now, CIPA applies with full force to schools. Until and unless there is a [new legal] challenge, that won’t change.”
A July Deadline
Under the law as well as regulations adopted by the Federal Communications Commission, school districts applying for E-rate discounts on Internet access must certify that they are in compliance with CIPA. For the school year now coming to a close, most applicants could state that they were undertaking compliance procedures, such as procuring filtering software. The regulations, however, did not require that the software be installed for the 2001-02 school year.
But with few exceptions, such as for districts with complex procurement requirements, most schools already receiving E-rate funds will need to have filtering software in place by July 1 of this year, said Liza Kessler, who is also a policy counsel to the Consortium for School Networking.
“The law is very confusingly written,” she said. “If you never participated in the E-rate program before, you would still have one year to get into compliance [with CIPA]. But if you were a school taking E-rate funding for a while, you have to be in [full] compliance as of July 1.”
A School Challenge?
The same rule applies to schools receiving money for Internet access under the ESEA, she said.
The public-library decision could provide the foundation for a legal challenge to the school provisions, said Judith F. Krug, the director of the library association’s office for intellectual freedom.
“Any entity that wants to challenge this for the school sector is going to have a very strong place to stand,” she said. “The technology of the filters isn’t changing for the better just because they are in schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Schools Still Required to Install Internet Filters