High court to rule if libraries must filter out Internet porn

By David G. Savage

Los Angeles Times

Nov. 13, 2002

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether the nation's public libraries can be required to screen sexually explicit Web sites from their computers in exchange for receiving federal money.

In May, federal judges in Philadelphia struck down this new requirement on the grounds it violated the free-speech rights of library patrons.

But Bush administration lawyers appealed, arguing it is simply wrong to say that libraries have a legal duty to display all books, magazines and videos, or that patrons have a right to see it all.

It is the rare library that "collects Hustler magazine or XXX movie titles," U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson said. "A library that refuses to make available to its patrons pornographic magazines or XXX videos may also refuse to make available comparable material through those computers," he said.

He urged the court to revive the federal law, known as the Children's Internet Protection Act.

The issue has been complicated by problems with the current filter technology, which may screen out pornography but also can block sites that are not obscene. For instance, students researching breast cancer or sexual orientations have been blocked from useful sites.

This is the third Internet pornography case to reach the high court.

Five years ago, the justices unanimously struck down a sweeping law that made it a crime to post "indecent" material on the Internet. Earlier this year, the court blocked enforcement of a narrower law that made it a crime to give minors access to commercial pornography. A lower court is studying how far that law would reach if put into effect.

The new law regulates only libraries that receive federal funds.

Two years ago, lawmakers attached the protection law to a large spending bill. They said the federal government should not subsidize the spread of hard-core pornography.

Public libraries that take federal money must install software filters on their computers with Internet access. The software is supposed to screen out "visual depictions" that are obscene or are "harmful to minors."

Lawyers for the American Library Association challenged the measure as unnecessary and unconstitutional. They said local libraries have policies to restrict the use of their computers, and they said there is no need for a mandatory national rule.

The federal law "takes a meat-ax approach to an area that requires far more sensitive tools," the association said Tuesday.

In February, the justices will hear arguments and issue a ruling by summer.

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