Lawsuit fights library Net filter law

March 25, 2002 at 11:07 PM
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PHILADELPHIA, March 25 (UPI) -- Several civil rights and library organizations faced off against the federal government Monday in a courtroom, challenging a law intended to prevent children from viewing pornography online.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups want the U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania to strike down the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000.

The law affects funding libraries and schools can receive to acquire and upgrade their computer and Internet facilities. Entities using such money must use software meant to block access to pornographic material.

Such filters are imperfect, said Paula Breuning, a lawyer for the Center for Demcoracy and Technology. Filters have stopped legitimate inquiries into adult-related topics such as sex education and family planning, the ACLU said.

"Filters are an imperfect but useful tool when they're used by families, but are dangerous when they're mandated by government," Breuning told reporters by telephone after attending the trial's first day.

The law's proponents say it represents an honest compromise between allowing free access to information and protecting children from online exploitation.

Librarians already promote responsible Internet use by their patrons, Breuning said, and studies show the majority of families do not want to use filtering software when offered the choice.

Since the funding is not mandatory, protection act supporters say the restrictions do not violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech. If groups do not want to filter content they should not accept the money, said John Morris, another lawyer for the democracy and technlogy group. The law's effects, however, vary widely between large city library systems and small-town efforts, especially financially, Morris said.

"The testimony that's been presented today and will be followed up on, is really going to make the case that for many libraries, if not most, it simply is not a choice," Morris told reporters. "It is something that the library cannot, in today's modern era of information being available (only) over the Internet, choose not to have Internet access, and many libraries cannot afford to have access without the federal funds."

Some libraries have been able to set up filtered Web access in "children only" rooms, while giving adults freedom to surf as they please, Morris told reporters, but the suggested law prohibits such activity.

Patrons have to prove their age to librarians and sometimes prove they are engaged in "legitimate research" to have filters removed, he said. Courts previously have found these sorts of requirements have a "chilling effect" on free speech, he said.

"The provision that allows bona fide research is implicitly within the law, an acknowledgement that this law does restrict access to material that's perfectly appropriate for adults to access," Morris said. "It's not a situation where the only thing being excluded is commercial pornography."

Filter software mistakenly has blocked sites belonging to organizations as innocuous as an animal rescue group, the ACLU said in a statement.

"The flaws in blocking programs are not a matter of individual flaws in individual products. They are inevitable given the task and the limitations of the technology," said Chris Hansen, an ACLU attorney taking part in the lawsuit. "Everyone from a congressional panel to Consumer Reports to parents have found blocking programs to be unworkable."

Judith F. Krug, director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom, said the law eliminates a community's ability to control its library system.

"Filters can give parents a false sense of security that their children are protected when they are not," Krug said in a statement. "It is only through education that young people can learn self-responsibility, which ultimately is the internal filter that will stay with them throughout childhood, young adulthood and into maturity."

The day's opening statements contained some possibilities for further compromise, Breuning said, including issuing library cards with proof of age included. These ideas are unworkable for most libraries, she said, given their expense and other burdens of implementation.

The trial is expected to run through the end of next week. Plaintiffs expect to have their case complete by Friday. If the court's decision is appealed, the case will go directly to the Supreme Court, the ACLU said.

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