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Thursday, July 15, 2004  

Law: Internet censorship at libraries has arrived

Multnomah County, in a case with implications for the rest of the country, is resigning itself to the fact that you win some and you lose some. The win and loss this time around is in regard to free speech. Unfettered access to the Internet is something we old hands take for granted. We accept that some pornography will inevitably pop up when we least expect it and that our email will contain the usual offers of Viagra and triple X pics. Some of us even seek such material out. But, we are old hands -- and adults. The question of whether Internet access should be freely available becomes more complex when children are involved.

The county first clashed with the federal government over the matter in 2002, filing a lawsuit in response to regulations it refused to implement. The regulations of the Child Online Protection Act would have allowed the federal government to decide which patrons of libraries could see what via Internet connected computers. Content that might be seen by children was to be filtered or else. The Act would have held libraries financially responsible if pornographic Internet content was sought out or slipped through. Multnomah County prevailed in court. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled the Act was unconstitutional because it unduly restricted access to information.

Congress passed the Child Protection Act in 1998, but it never went into effect. The law would have authorized fines up to $50,000 for the crime of placing harmful material within easy reach of children.

But, to an extent, the outcome in regard to the Child Online Protection Act was a Pyrrhic victory. Congress had passed another law restricting use of the Internet in public libraries. It is the later regulations that were upheld. The Multnomah County Library system, and possibly yours, is not in compliance with them.

The county -- one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the then-nascent Children's Internet Protection Act -- argued that Internet filters were a form of censorship and prohibited access to information. Government officials countered that without filters libraries allowed access to pornography. The new law, they said, simply stopped children from viewing objectionable material.

Librarians and proponents of free speech complained that filters are the equivalent of censorship. Under filtered Internet use, students would be blocked from viewing sites that could be potentially helpful for school projects -- date rape or abusive relationships, for instance -- but that would be filtered out because of certain key words.

Multnomah County joined the American Library Association as a plaintiff in the suit and then-Director Ginnie Cooper -- who now runs the Brooklyn Public Library -- testified against the law.

. . .In 2002, a federal panel of judges in Philadelphia ruled that the law violated the First Amendment because filters blocked too much material that wasn't pornographic in nature. But in 2003, the Supreme Court overruled the panel, saying that because libraries can unlock the filters upon request, they don't impose too great a burden on the systems that use them.

The different rulings in the two cases can be summed up in one word: control. The COPA put control directly in the federal government's hands, the ultimate in state action. The CIPA, though, allows libraries to exercise some discretion in filtering Internet content.

For the most part, the Children's Internet Protection Act and the Supreme Court's ruling in the case last year don't serve as mandates to filter Internet use by children. Libraries still have control over the Internet use of children and other patrons.

A number of library systems in larger metropolitan areas offer a choice of filtered or unfiltered access. Some smaller and midsized systems decided to comply with the law in order to keep federal money, while others are figuring out how to balance the need for protection against the freedom to gather information.

The federal government is using a carrot instead of a stick to urge compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act. Library systems that filter all Internet computers or filter any used by children, including teens, are eligible for federal funds. Systems that do not are not. Libraries decide whether to censor the Internet. However, SCOTUS has ruled that their decisionmaking does not amount to usurping the free speech rights of the public because exceptions can be made -- filters can be removed when it is deemed appropriate.

It is unclear how effective any of the plans that allow some form of filtering will be. Pornography is so rampant on the Internet that innocuous browsing can lead to a site full of lascivious photos. Even filtered computers, which search for porn using key words, are likely to miss some. Or, the material may enter through a back door, such as clicking on a recently published blog in the Blogger masthead and discovering it contains racy material. Furthermore, children who are subjected to censorship at the library may not be at home, the coffee shop or the neighborhood pizza place. Efforts to control children's access to pornographic content completely will prove futile.

Multnomah County Library will allow children under 13 to use only filtered computers.

What's the art?

An exterior view of the historic central Multnomah County Library in downtown Portland, Oregon. The building opened in 1913.

Reasonably related

The American Library Association maintains a comprehensive collection of information about the Children's Internet Protection Act on its site.

11:45 PM