WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court, in what could become a landmark free speech case, agreed Tuesday to decide whether a federal law that requires public libraries to install Internet filters on their computers violates the First Amendment.
A lower court has ruled that it does.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act compels telecommunications companies to provide Internet access to public schools and public libraries at a discount. For the year ending in July 2002, that discount amounted to about $58.5 million.
A separate federal law, the Library Services and Technology Act, also gives federal assistance to libraries in the form of grants to link to the Internet. In fiscal 2002, the aid amounted to more than $149 million.
Beginning in 1998, however, some members of Congress began to worry that instead of performing an educational service, Internet-connected computers at libraries were serving up on-line pornography.
Following a hearing, Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act. Under that act, a library cannot receive aid under the two funding programs unless it installs a filter that keeps "all persons" from accessing obscenity or child pornography, and keeps children from accessing anything that is "harmful to minors."
However, one man's pornography can be another man's literature or medical information, and a group of libraries, associations, patrons and Web-site publishers filed suit against the law.
Their suit contended that CIPA forced libraries to violate the First Amendment, and placed an unconstitutional restriction on the libraries' own free speech rights.
A three-judge trial court in Philadelphia ruled for the challengers, saying that Congress could not use the power of the purse to force the states to do something unconstitutional.
The Bush administration then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which took jurisdiction Tuesday.
In a brief to the high court, the administration argued that computer filters are a "constitutionally permissible" way to exercise control over the kinds of materials it provides the public.
Argument in the case will probably be heard in the late spring.
(No. 02-361, United States of America et al vs. the American Library Association et al)