ACLU Disappointed in Ruling on Internet Censorship in Libraries, But Sees Limited Impact for Adults

June 23, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today said that it was disappointed by a fractured Supreme Court ruling that Congress can force public libraries to install blocking software on library Internet terminals, but noted that the ruling minimized the law’s impact on adults, who can insist that the software be disabled.

“Although we are disappointed that the Court upheld a law that is unequivocally a form of censorship, there is a silver lining. The Justices essentially rewrote the law to minimize its effect on adult library patrons,” said Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, which had challenged the law on behalf of libraries, adult and minor library patrons, and Internet content providers.

At issue was the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a law passed in December 2000 that requires any library receiving certain forms of federal aid to install Web “blocking” programs that censor a wide range of valuable material for adults and minors.

The law had allowed librarians to disable the blocking of a particular website only “upon a bona fide research or other lawful purpose,” thus requiring librarians to become censorship police.

However, in a fractured decision in which no majority joined, the Court today essentially rewrote the rules, saying that librarians can disable the software entirely on request and that patrons do not have provide a reason as to why they want a site unblocked. The ruling also implies that patrons would not have to identify themselves to request unblocking. Both the law and the opinions are unclear as to what the unblocking rules will be with respect to children, Hansen added.

What is clear, as Justice Kennedy wrote, was that “on the request of an adult user, a librarian will unblock filtered material or disable the Internet software filter without significant delay.” That distinction leaves the door open to additional challenges if libraries do not adopt an adequate unblocking system, Hansen said, and the ACLU will explore that possibility.

Attorneys in the ACLU case are Hansen and Ann Beeson of the national ACLU; Stefan Presser of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Chuck Sims, a volunteer attorney with the law firm Proskauer Rose in New York City; and Scott Asphaug, Multnomah County Attorney.

A Web feature on the ACLU case, including links to legal documents, special reports and other background, is online at /Cyber-Liberties/Cyber-Liberties.cfm?ID=12017&c=55

The consolidated cases are U.S. v. Multnomah County Library et al. and U.S. v. American Library Association, No. 02-361.

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