Federal Court Rejects Government Censorship in Libraries, Citing Free Speech Rights of Patrons

May 31, 2002 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA–In yet another blow to the government’s repeated attempts to censor the Internet, a federal court today decisively rejected a law that forces libraries to deny adults as well as minors access to constitutionally protected speech online in order to receive federal funding.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court here agreed with arguments made by the American Civil Liberties Union and others that blocking programs cannot effectively screen out only material deemed “”harmful to minors.”” The court called the software a “”blunt instrument,”” adding that “”the problems faced by manufacturers and vendors of filtering software are legion.””

“”The court today barred the government from turning librarians into thought police armed with clumsy blocking programs,”” said Ann Beeson, litigation director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, which along with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and other rights groups challenged the law.

“”The court found that these programs are inherently flawed and will inevitably prevent library patrons all over the country from accessing valuable speech online,”” she added.

At issue is the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a federal law passed in December 2000 that ties crucial library funding to the mandated use of blocking programs on Internet terminals used by both adults and minors in public libraries. The law defines such measures as “”a specific technology that blocks or filters Internet access”” such as the commercially available blocking programs N2H2, Cyber Patrol, Websense and Smartfilter.

Based on nine days of testimony from librarians, patrons, web publishers and experts, the court supported its ruling with over 100 pages of detailed findings of fact, which established that “”at least tens of thousands”” of web pages are wrongly blocked by the programs, including web sites for the Knights of Columbus, a Christian orphanage in Honduras and several political candidates.

Ginnie Cooper, director of the Multnomah County Library in Oregon, the lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit, welcomed the court’s recognition that librarians are well-versed in using their professional skills to help patrons find what they want online and avoid Internet sites they don’t want to see.

“”The court’s decision affirms the importance of local control in determining library Internet policies,”” she said. “”No one wants children to be exposed to pornography on the Internet, on television or anyplace else. What’s important is finding effective solutions to this problem.””

As Cooper testified in March, such methods include establishing policies for Internet usage that prohibit access to illegal content; the use of handouts, online guides, training sessions and recommended web pages; providing terminals with optional rather than mandatory blocking software; and the use of wraparound privacy screens to maintain a non-threatening Internet environment.

Any appeal of today’s decision will go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is required to hear challenges to this law.

The case is Multnomah County Library vs. United States of America, No. 01-CV-1322. Multnomah County and others are represented by the ACLU. The American Library Association has filed a similar challenge on behalf of its members, American Library Association vs. United States of America, No. 01-CV-1303. The two cases have been consolidated by the court.

Attorneys in the ACLU case are Beeson, Chris Hansen and Kevin Bankston 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; Charles Sims and volunteer attorneys with the law firm Proskauer Rose in New York City; and Tom Sponsler, Multnomah County Attorney.

The decision of the court is online at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov.

More information on the case is available online at /node/22529

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