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Senate to consider another Internet filtering bill

David Hudson
First Amendment Center

08.18.99

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Another Internet filtering bill has been introduced in Congress — one that seeks to protect children from "inappropriate" material.

Earlier this month, Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Pa., introduced the Neighborhood Children's Internet Protection Act. The bill would require public schools and libraries to either install blocking software on Internet-accessing computers "dedicated to student use" or adopt an Internet use policy that would protect minors from "inappropriate" material.

Another provision of the bill provides that determining "what matter is inappropriate for minors shall be made by the school board, library, or other authority responsible for making the determination."

The bill does not define "inappropriate."

One of the differences between Santorum's measure and another Internet filtering bill, the Children's Internet Protection Act introduced in Congress in January, is that Santorum's employs the "inappropriate for minors" standard rather than "harmful to minors."

At least two free-speech experts question the constitutionality and the efficacy of such a proposal. Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, told free!: "One tends to dismiss such proposals as one more attempt to get in on the Internet regulation act. However, always buried within these bills are the seeds of the First Amendment's destruction."

McMasters says that "trotting out the standard 'inappropriate for minors' is pushing the envelope a little further as well as setting up one more ambiguous bar for protected speech."

"If such a standard gets written into law, the inevitable result will be that speech that shouldn't be censored will be because no one knows what the term 'inappropriate' means," he said.

Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney with People for the American Way, agrees that the use of the "inappropriate for minors" language is "certainly broader" than the standard in Sen. John McCain's Children's Internet Protection Act. "In a sense this latest bill is somewhat narrower, however, because it gives local schools and libraries the option of either installing the filtering software or certifying that they have an acceptable-use policy," he told free!

Ottinger says the bill represents political posturing and will do more harm than good. "Unfortunately, this is an issue that is not likely to go away," he added.

"Libraries don't need an act of Congress to establish acceptable use policies for the Internet," McMasters said. "They already have them in place."

The bill has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee. No hearing date has been set.

Robert Traynham, Santorum's press secretary, told free!: "The bill is still very much in draft form. The senator is still tweaking the bill and listening to his constituents."

Traynham said the bill was drafted to "protect minors from indecent materials on the Internet and involves local communities and parents."

Traynham said the senator would continue working on the bill once Congress comes back from recess after Labor Day.

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