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Federal law requiring Net filtering at libraries thrown out

By The Associated Press

05.31.02

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PHILADELPHIA — Three federal judges today threw out a federal law that would have forced public libraries to equip computers with software designed to block access to Internet pornography.

In their 195-page decision, the judges said the Children's Internet Protection Act went too far, blocking access to sites that contained protected speech.

"Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions will necessarily restrict patrons access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment," the judges wrote.

The judges in April heard nearly two weeks of testimony over the law, which had been widely criticized by First Amendment groups.

The law, which was to go into effect on July 1, would require public libraries receiving certain federal technology funds to install the filters or risk losing federal funding.

The judges wrote that they were concerned that library patrons who wanted to view sites blocked by filtering software might be embarrassed or lose their right to remain anonymous because they would have to ask permission to have the sites unblocked.

The filtering software blocked substantial amounts of protected speech "whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest," the judges wrote.

Any appeal of the decision by 3rd U.S. Circuit Judge Edward R. Becker and U.S. District Judges John P. Fullam and Harvey Bartle III would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice Department, which defended the law, is reviewing the decision but had no immediate comment, spokesman Charles Miller said.

The decision was applauded by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, who had argued that the law is unenforceable, unconstitutional, vague and overbroad, and denied poor people without home computers the same full access to information as their wealthy neighbors.

"There is no correction to the law that can be made here to save it. The technology cannot block simply obscene speech, or speech that is harmful to minors, without blocking an enormous amount of speech that is constitutionally protected," said Stefan Presser, the ACLU's legal director in Pennsylvania.

Critics claim that Web sites can get mistakenly categorized as porn by mistake-prone filtering programs — making information on breast cancer and homosexuality, for example, unavailable to library Net surfers.

Justice Department lawyers defending the law argued that Internet smut is so pervasive that protections are necessary to keep it away from youngsters, and that the law simply calls for libraries to use the same care in selecting online content as they do for books and magazines.

They also point out that libraries can simply turn down the funding if they want to provide unfiltered Web access.

The Children's Internet Protection Act was the third anti-Internet-porn law brought before federal judges for constitutional challenges.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act made it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The 1998 Child Online Protection Act required Web sites to collect a credit card number or other proof of age before allowing Internet users to view material deemed "harmful to minors." The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred enforcement, saying the standards were so broad and vague that the law was probably unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court partially upheld the law in May, but did not make a ruling on its constitutionality as a whole. It remains on hold for further action in lower courts.

Update

Government to appeal ruling on library Net filtering to high court
Bush administration wants justices to revive Children's Internet Protection Act, which lower court struck down last month.  06.21.02

Previous

Fate of Internet-filtering law now in hands of judges
Federal panel hears nearly two weeks of testimony in American Library Association's challenge to Children's Internet Protection Act.  04.05.02

Related

Supreme Court partially upholds COPA
But justices send case back to appeals court to resolve other free-speech issues; 1998 law remains on hold.  05.13.02

Anti-censorship advocate locks horns with anti-pornography filterers
Meet Bennett Haselton, Internet activist: founder of Peacefire, hero to Web-savvy kids, villain to filtering proponents.  06.22.02

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