Supreme Court Upholds Library Filtering Law. The Supreme Court today held that public libraries can be required to install software designed to block sexually explicit Web sites. The decision upholds the Childrens Internet Protection Act, which requires the installation of filtering software on computers in libraries that receive federal support. EPIC's publication, Filters & Freedom 2.0, details the free expression implications of filtering technologies. (June 23, 2003)
Text of Opinions (pdf):
Court's Syllabus | Majority Opinion | Concurring Opinion (Kennedy) | Concurring Opinion (Breyer) |
Dissenting Opinion (Stevens) | Dissenting Opinion (Souter)
District Court Finds Library Filtering Law Unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel in Philadelphia ruled (also available in PDF) today that the government's latest attempt to censor the internet violates the First Amendment because it would restrict substantial amounts of protected speech "whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest." The Childrens Internet Protection Act, which requires the installation of filtering software on computers in libraries that receive federal support, was challenged by a coalition of libraries and patrons. EPIC is acting as co-counsel in the lawsuit. Today's decision also notes that the law infringes upon the First Amendment right to anonymity because it forces patrons to reveal their identity in order to get certain cites unblocked. The statute provides for an automatic right of review to the Supreme Court. (May 31, 2002)
Overview of CIPA
In December 1999 the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) passed into law. The legislation requires schools and libraries receiving federal funds for Internet access to install filtering software to block access to materials that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.
Congress approved CIPA even after its own 18-member committee rejected the proposal 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."
In a consolidated complaint (pdf) filed in federal court in Philadelphia on March 2001, EPIC, the ACLU, and the American Library Association (ALA) challenged the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) on both privacy and First Amendment grounds.
EPIC, the ACLU and the ALA are fighting to have the law declared unconstitutional for several reasons:It violates the First Amendment.
CIPA violates the First Amendment because it prevents citizens from communicating and accessing constitutionally protected speech, imposes a prior restraint on speech, is not narrowly tailored to limit speech in the least restrictive way possible, and violates the well-established right to communicate anonymously by requiring adults to prove a "bona fide research purpose" before accessing protected speech at public librarires.
Web site blocking is erratic and ineffective.
Blocking programs routinely and inexplicably block sites that clearly do not fall under the categories proscribed by the law. The flaws in blocking programs are not a matter of individual flaws in particular products; they are inherent to the technology.
EPIC has released a new collection of critiques and studies that document the negative impact of content blocking systems. Filters and Freedom 2.0: Free Speech Perspectives on Internet Content Controls warns that the adoption of software to limit the availability of material online may jeopardize free expression and facilitate government censorship. Often characterized by their proponents as mere features or tools, filtering and rating systems can also be viewed as fundamental architectural changes that may, in fact, facilitate the suppression of speech far more effectively than national laws alone ever could. Several popular Internet filters block websites of human rights organizations. A 1998 study by Consumer Reports noted "filters block harmless sites merely because their software does not consider the context in which a word or phrase is used. Far more troubling is when a filter appears to block legitimate sites based on moral or political value judgments."
Web blocking is contrary to the mission of public libraries.
Libraries play a unique role in our society, bringing people together with the information they need by ensuring information is available across the spectrum of social and political thought. Libraries preserve democratic society by making available the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas, so people can choose for themselves what they want to read or view or listen to. But "the law makes it impossible for us to do our jobs," said Ginny Cooper, Library Director at the Multnomah County Public Library in Portland, Oregon, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
It will widen the digital divide.
Mandatory library blocking would widen the "digital divide" that already exists between those who can afford Internet access in the home and low-income people, minorities, and those who live in rural areas where reliable Internet access is not always available.
The case survived a motion to dismiss in July 2001. Trial before a special three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Philadelphia began March 25, 2002, and lasted nine days.
- ACLU's page on the CIPA challenge
- ALA's page on the CIPA challenge
- List of plaintiffs
- COPA Commission Report recommending against adoption of blocking and filtering systems
- ACLU's report Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?
- More information about filters and internet regulation is available at Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report
Articles & Commentary
- "Civil Libertarians Watch Library Board's New Internet Policy" -- a "filtering" controversy arises in Loudon County, Virginia (from the Washington Post)
- "Censor's Sensibility: Are Web Filters Valuable Watchdogs or Just New Online Thought Police?" (from TIME Magazine)
- "Push for a Content-Rating System Becomes an International Affair" (from New York Times CyberTimes)
- "Filters and the Public Library: A Legal and Policy Analysis" ( by Mary Minow)
- "The V-Chip: Coming Up Short or Unconstitutional Overreaching?" (by Kevin W. Saunders) -- the related issue of "filtering" television content
- Porn-Filter Trial Gets Raunchy" (by Declan McCullagh 03/26/02)
- "Testimony Defies Net Censor Law" Philadelphia Inquirer (03/26/02)
- "Porn Trial Experts Say Software Block Limited" cnn.com (03/27/02)
- "Witnesses Advocate Unfiltered Internet: A child-protection law would make libraries block certain material" Philadelphia Inquirer (03/27/02)
- "Standing Up to the Law: Library System Director Says the Children's Internet Protection Act is Folly" (from the LA Times)
- "Judges Blast Library Filtering" (by Declan McCullagh 04/04/02)
- Politech archive on CIPA