Supreme Court Rules 6-3 for Internet Filters at Libraries

The US Supreme Court ruled today that Congress can require public libraries to use Internet filters on their computers, ostensibly to block access to pornography. This ruling in United States v. American Library Association, et. al. upholds the Children’s Internet Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000, which requires libraries that receive federal funding to use filters on all computers, according to the Associated Press.

In their dissenting opinion, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter point out that Internet filters siphon out not only pornography, but also information about family planning, sexual and reproductive health, and other important information. The American Library Association (ALA), the world’s oldest and largest library association, denounced the decision, saying in a press statement that “forcing Internet filters on all library computer users strikes at the heart of user choice in libraries and at the libraries’ mission of providing the broadest range of materials to diverse users.” “There is no good reason … to treat blocking of adult enquiry as anything different from the censorship it presumptively is,” writes Justice Souter, joined by Justice Ginsburg. The ALA called on filtering companies to fully disclose which sites they block and what criteria they use to make these decisions, which are currently considered proprietary information and are unavailable to the general public, according to Souter’s dissenting opinion. Evidence presented at the Supreme Court hearing included a list of sites blocked by Internet filters even though they do not meet legal definitions of “harmful to minors” and “obscenity,” including the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a widely respected reproductive health research organization; the Embassy of Finland; the Florida Museum of Hispanic and Latin American Art; and Planned Parenthood.

The majority of Justices ruled that because adult patrons could ask for a filter to be disabled at any particular computer, CIPA does not violate the First Amendment, the Washington Post reports. However, disabling the filters can take days or even be impossible in smaller, less-staffed libraries, according to Souter’s dissenting opinion. This decision overturns a May 2002 ruling by a three-judge panel in Philadelphia.

LEARN MORE Look through the American Civil Liberties Union’s resources on the Supreme Court case and on filtering software in general

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Supreme Court decision 6/23/03; ALA release 6/23/03; Washington Post 6/23/03; Associated Press 6/23/03; ACLU

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