ACLU Calls for 'Reality Check' As Congress Introduces Yet Another Internet Censorship Bill

March 4, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, March 4, 1999

WASHINGTON — As lawmakers held hearings today on a new plan to require Internet blocking schemes in public schools and libraries, the American Civil Liberties Union called for a “reality check” in the debate over online censorship.

“Lawmakers continue to ignore the technological realities and constitutional problems with these bills, while pro-censorship groups continue to mislead the public with horror stories about what is at stake,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “A reality check is long overdue.”

Introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, the “Children’s Internet Protection Act,” S.97, would require all public libraries and schools to block “indecent” Internet sites or lose federal funds. Similar versions of the bill were defeated in the 105th Congress.

“Contrary to what the bill’s supporters have claimed,” Steinhardt said, “this law has nothing to do with child pornography or sexual predation — both of which are already illegal — and everything to do with censoring adult speech and taking important decisions out of parents’ hands.”

Last November, in the first-ever decision to address the constitutionality of Internet blocking in libraries, a federal court agreed, saying that forcing adults to use blocking software in public libraries “offends the guarantee of free speech.”

In a case originating in Loudoun County, Va., the judge soundly rejected the notion that access to the Internet “should really be construed as a library acquisition decision, to which the First Amendment does not apply, rather than a decision to remove library materials.”

The judge also noted that the government failed to show that “any other libraries have encountered problems” with children accessing inappropriate materials online and that “[the government’s] own statements indicate that such problems are practically nonexistent.”

The ACLU, on the other hand, successfully demonstrated that the software in use blocked adult library patrons from accessing important online speech on issues ranging from safer sex to fine art to popular news columns.

The McCain bill requires mandatory Internet blocking software in all public schools and mandates at least one terminal in every library branch. Libraries with only one computer terminal will be allowed to remain free of blocking software, but must certify that they have adopted an “acceptable use” policy in order to receive federal funds.

Such an approach, while an improvement over last year’s attempt to mandate blocking of all public library terminals, still transfers local control of libraries into the hands of the federal government, the ACLU said.

The ACLU has suggested a variety of less restrictive means that libraries could use voluntarily to keep children from accessing inappropriate material online, including establishing acceptable use policies, placing privacy screens around terminals, and allowing optional filtering on terminals used by children.

In a 1998 report entitled “Censorship in a Box: Why Blocking Software is Wrong for Public Libraries,” the ACLU explained how blocking software works and provided detailed examples of its censorship effect in public libraries. The report concluded that blocking software censors valuable, constitutionally protected speech for adults and gives parents and educators a false sense of security about what their children are encountering online.

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