Librarians Take the Stand in First Day of Trial on Government Censorship in Libraries

March 25, 2002 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE PHILADELPHIA–In a nine-day trial that starts today, the American Civil Liberties Union will present testimony from librarians, library patrons, website authors and web experts to explain why a federal law that forces libraries to censor constitutionally protected speech online should be permanently struck down.

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.

“Librarians are uniquely qualified to teach library patrons how to find the content they want and avoid inappropriate content without the government trying to deputize them into the thought police,” said Ann Beeson, a member of the ACLU legal team that will be presenting arguments in the trial before the U.S. District Court.

The ACLU’s clients include public libraries from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine; a 15-year-old African American girl and her aunt, both of Philadelphia, who do not have Internet access at home; two candidates for Congress whose websites were blocked;, a leading website for gay lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons; and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, whose website provides reproductive health care information.

The ACLU has created a comprehensive web page for the case that includes a list of the daily trial witnesses and their bios, legal papers, expert reports, and examples of wrongly blocked websites, at /Privacy/Privacy.cfm?ID=13787&c=131

Long before blocking programs ever became an issue, libraries have made it their mission to help people find exactly the information they need, whether it is online or on paper. But “the law makes it impossible for us to do our jobs,” said Ginnie Cooper, Library Director at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, who is testifying today.

Nonetheless, libraries must now install “blocking technology measures” or forfeit much-needed federal funds. The law defines such measures as “a specific technology that blocks or filters Internet access” such as the commercially available blocking programs X-Stop and CyberPatrol.

This week, the ACLU also plans to present testimony from experts who will show that these programs function as automatic censors that irrationally and arbitrarily block speech that is constitutionally protected.

Examples of such wrongful blocking include: (a wood varnish removal service), (a California event planner), (an animal rescue organization), and (a hospital radiation oncology department). All of these sites were censored by blocking companies after erroneously being identified as having sexually explicit or pornographic content.

“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 senior staff attorney and member of the CIPA challenge legal team. “Everyone from a Congressional panel to Consumer Reports to parents have found blocking programs to be unworkable.”

In contrast, librarians already use their professional skills and method to help patrons who access the Internet at the public library. 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.

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; the two cases have been consolidated by the court.

The cases will be heard together by a three-judge panel consisting of the Hon. Chief Judge Edward Becker of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia and the Hon. Harvey Bartle III and the Hon. Chief Judge John P. Fullam, both of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, also in Philadelphia.

Any appeal of the decision in the case will go straight to the Supreme Court, which is required to hear challenges to this law.

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