Federal judges throw out anti-porn law requiring filtering software at libraries

Friday, May 31st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Public libraries cannot be forced to use Internet filters designed to block pornography, three federal judges said Friday in overturning a new federal law.

In a 195-page decision, the judges said the Children's Internet Protection Act went too far because the filters can also block access to sites that contain protected speech.

``Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions will necessarily restrict patrons' access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment,'' the judges wrote.

The law, signed by President Clinton in 2000, would have required public libraries to install the filters by July 1 or risk losing federal funding. It had been widely criticized by First Amendment groups.

``There is no correction to the law that can be made here to save it,'' said Stefan Presser, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal director in Pennsylvania. ``The technology cannot block simply obscene speech, or speech that is harmful to minors, without blocking an enormous amount of speech that is constitutionally protected.''

The judges, who heard nearly two weeks of testimony in April, wrote that they were concerned that library patrons who wanted to view sites blocked by filtering software might be embarrassed or lose their right to remain anonymous because they would have to ask permission to have the sites unblocked.

A message left for a Justice Department spokesman was not immediately returned Friday.

Any appeal of the decision by 3rd U.S. Circuit Judge Edward R. Becker and U.S. District judges John P. Fullam and Harvey Bartle III would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision was applauded by the American Library Association and the ACLU, which contended the law was unenforceable, unconstitutional, vague and overbroad. They argued it denied poor people without home computers the same access to information as their wealthier neighbors because the software could mistakenly block Web sites on issues such as breast cancer and homosexuality.

Justice Department lawyers argued that Internet smut is so pervasive that protections are necessary to keep it away from youngsters, and that the law simply calls for libraries to use the same care in selecting online content that they use for books and magazines.

They also pointed out that libraries could turn down the federal funding if they want to provide unfiltered Web access.

The Children's Internet Protection Act was the third anti-Internet-porn law brought before federal judges for constitutional challenges.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act made it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The 1998 Child Online Protection Act required Web sites to collect a credit card number or other proof of age before allowing Internet users to view material deemed ``harmful to minors.'' The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred enforcement of that law, saying the standards were so broad and vague that the law was probably unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court partially upheld the law in May, but did not rule on its constitutionality as a whole. It remains on hold for further action in lower courts.