Court upholds use of Internet filters in libraries

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that Congress can force the nation's public libraries to equip computers with anti-pornography filters.

The blocking technology, intended to keep smut from children, does not violate the First Amendment even though it shuts off some legitimate, informational Web sites, the court held.

Although most public-use computers in local libraries do not have filters, steps have been taken to prevent children from accessing pornography.

None of the eight public-use computers at Riverside Regional Library's resource center in Jackson have filters, but the library adopted a new Internet policy last year designed to deter access to pornographic Web sites.

Library director Nancy Howland said the policy requires children under the age of 16 to have parental permission before using the Internet and encourages parents to monitor children as they browse Web sites.

The Cape Girardeau Public Library has a filtration system on seven of the library's 12 Internet computers, including five computers in the youth services section.

Limits some access

In the nine years that the library has offered Internet access, director Betty Martin said, there's been an average of four incidents per year of people downloading inappropriate images.

"Filters are not a perfect solution," said Martin. "The people who put pornography on the Internet have found ways around filters. Filters limit access to artistic and medical sites, making it difficult for people doing legitimate research."

The 6-3 ruling reinstates a law that told libraries to install filters or surrender federal money. Four justices said the law was constitutional, and two others said it was allowable as long as libraries disable the filters for patrons who ask. The court described pornography in libraries as a serious problem.

"To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance," the main ruling said.

Judith Krug, with Chicago-based American Library Association, predicted that many libraries would consider turning down the money rather than installing filters. "We can't govern ourselves effectively if we don't have information available. It's not up to the filtering companies to decide," she said.

It was a victory for Congress, which has struggled to find ways to shield children from pornographic Internet sites. Congress has passed three laws since 1996; the first was struck down by the Supreme Court and the second was blocked by the court from taking effect.

The first two laws dealt with regulations on Web site operators. The latest approach, in the 2000 law, mandated that public libraries put blocking technology on computers as a condition for receiving federal money. Libraries have received about $1 billion since 1999 in technologies subsidies.

Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.

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