Supreme Court Upholds Internet Filter Law; Opponents Say Some Health Information Blocked
The Supreme Court on Monday upheld 6-3 the Children's Internet Protection Act -- which requires public libraries that receive federal funding to put anti-pornography Internet filters on their computers or lose their funding -- saying that the law does not violate the First Amendment, the Washington Post reports. In the suit, originally filed in December 2000 after the law took effect, the American Library Association and a group of Internet users and Web sites claimed that filtering software was "so imprecise" that it blocks access to constitutionally protected sexual material, including medical information. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that filters set at the least restrictive level block 87% of pornography and 1.4% of general health sites (Lane, Washington Post, 6/24). The study, published in the Dec. 11, 2002, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, also found that the programs blocked a "much higher" percentage of sexual health sites -- 9% at the least restrictive setting. The study, titled "See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information" and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, tested six popular Internet filtering programs at three different settings -- "least," "intermediate" and "most" restrictive. Programs set at the most restrictive setting blocked nearly 25% of general health sites and 50% of sexual health sites. Among the sites blocked by the programs were a CDC site on sexually transmitted diseases; an FDA site on birth control failure rates; and a Princeton University site on emergency contraception (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/11/02). Lawyers representing ALA said that the filters were "clumsy and ineffective" and that utilizing them would block "thousands" of Web sites without reason, the Los Angeles Times reports (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 6/24).
In the court's lead opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that libraries can exclude pornographic materials from their book collections and it would "make little sense to treat libraries' judgment to block online pornography any differently," adding, "To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance," the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Chiang, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24). The justices said that by passing the law -- which requires libraries to install the filters to be eligible for $200 million in federal assistance -- Congress is deciding how taxpayer money is spent, "just as it did in barring federal family planning funds to organizations that provide abortion referrals," the Washington Times reports (Murray, Washington Times, 6/24). Justice John Paul Stevens said in a dissenting opinion that with the "constantly expanding and changing information on the Internet," any filter would fail to successfully block a "substantial amount" of sexually explicit material, while also blocking access to "legitimate speech," the Chronicle reports (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24). He added that the law was tantamount to a "statutory blunderbuss that mandates this vast amount of over-blocking" of constitutionally protected material (Los Angeles Times, 6/24).
The following broadcast programs reported on the Supreme Court ruling:
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from Carol Brey-Casiano of the ALA, Internet content filter manufacturer David Burt and Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (Hager, "Nightly News," NBC, 6/23). The full segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from David Bird, a former librarian who now works for Internet filter producer N2H2; Chris Hanson of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Emily Sheketoff, ALA executive director (Abramson, "All Things Considered," NPR, 6/23). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment reports on the reactions of San Francisco librarians and library patrons to the ruling (Korry, "Morning Edition," NPR, 6/24). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer": Host Jim Lehrer discusses the case with Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune (Lehrer, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 6/23). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.