In a defeat for free speech online, the Supreme Court ruled
Monday that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is
legal. This decision overturns that of a Philadelphia appeals court by
arguing for the constitutionality of a law which can require public
libraries to install filtering software.
Under CIPA, any public library which accepts funding from the Federal
Government under the E-rate program or the Library Services and
Technologies Act must then install software on all Internet-connected
computers to "block images that constitute obscenity or child
pornography, and to prevent minors from obtaining access to material
that is harmful to them." Very few of our nation's already
cash-strapped public libraries want to turn down government grants, so
the law effectively forces all libraries to install such software.
The American Library Association
filed a lawsuit, supported by the ACLU, EFF, and others, in
which it attempted to have CIPA ruled unconstitutional. In addition to
arguing against the requirement that all libraries, onetime bastions
of free speech, be forced to censor, the ALA noted the poor
efficiency of all filtering products currently on the market. All
filters fail to block some allegedly-offensive sites, while blocking
sites like this
one, in addition to non-pornographic sites about health,
sexuality, and others.
Although six Justices, led by Chief Justice Rehnquist, voted to uphold
CIPA and Internet censorship, there is still some hope in the
concurring opinions written by Justices Kennedy and Breyer. As the ALA
these two Justices, despite voting to uphold CIPA, seem to require
that library patrons who wish to have a specific site unblocked be
allowed to do so quickly and easily. Justices Stevens, Souter, and
Ginsburg voted to uphold the District Court's ruling declaring CIPA
As Justice Souter notes in his dissent, CIPA is likely to have the
greatest impact on youth, the poor, and the least
computer-literate. Some 10% of American Internet users, he notes, have
access only through their local public libraries. These users,
combined with students whose schools have Internet filters, will have
the greatest difficulty in avoiding the filters' censorship.
One of the attorneys involved in the case may ring a bell for
2600 readers, though in a surprising way. Charles Sims,
for the MPAA
in its DeCSS lawsuit against 2600, contributed,
pro bono, to the ACLU brief arguing that CIPA should be overturned.