The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to consider the constitutionality of a federal law that requires public libraries receiving federal technology funds to block pornographic Web sites.
The law at issue in the case, the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, or CIPA, also applies to schools receiving E-rate or other federal technology funding. But the case before the high court does not challenge the law with regard to computers in classrooms or school libraries. Public and private schools receiving federal technology funds must adopt plans that include the installation of blocking software to protect children from sexually explicit Web sites.
A special three-judge federal trial court in Philadelphia on May 31 struck down the law as it applied to public libraries. That court ruled unanimously that the statute violated the First Amendment free-speech rights of library patrons because software-filtering programs often block Web sites containing protected speech.
The court concluded that there were less restrictive ways for libraries to prevent access to the content prohibited by CIPA—obscenity, child pornography, and other material that, while acceptable for adult perusal, would be considered harmful to minors.
Congress authorized a fast-track review for the law, and the Bush administration appealed the three judges’ decision directly to the Supreme Court in United States v. American Library Association (Case No. 02-361).
“The district court’s decision directly frustrates Congress’s efforts to ensure that special federal assistance made available to libraries to enable them to establish and maintain access to the Internet for educational and other purposes does not facilitate access to the enormous amount of illegal and harmful pornography on the Internet,” said the appeal signed by Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson.
He argued that just as a library makes decisions about what books and magazines to add to its collections, it can also decide to restrict access to the Internet.
Mr. Olson told the court: “A library that refuses to make available to its patrons pornographic magazines or XXX[-rated] videos may also refuse to make available comparable material through ... computers.”
The American Library Association challenged the law on behalf of public libraries and patrons. In a brief urging the court not to review its lower-court victory, the ALA argued that “Congress has inflicted a profound double injury on the First Amendment” through CIPA.
“Not only does CIPA unduly restrict the most diverse, expansive medium ever created, it also compounds the problem by regulating that medium in one of the most democratizing, speech-enhancing institutions in America—the public library,” the brief said.
Parade of Cases
The Supreme Court announced on Nov. 12 that it would hear the case. Oral arguments are likely early next year, with a decision expected by the end of the court’s term next June.
The justices in recent years have considered several laws designed to protect children from sexually explicit material on the Internet. In 1997, the court struck down the Communications Decency Act, Congress’s first attempt to regulate pornography on the Internet.
Last term, in a case dealing with a statute known as the Child Online Protection Act, the court issued a highly splintered ruling that partially upheld the law but sent it back to a lower court for federal review. COPA is a general law that makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to make sexually explicit material available to minors. (“Court Leaves Future of Online-Protection Law Uncertain,” May 22, 2002.)
A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Internet-Filter Law