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Library group fights mandatory filtering law

The American Library Association decides to file a lawsuit challenging a new federal law that would require filtering in public schools and libraries.

The American Library Association has decided to file a lawsuit challenging a new federal law that would require filtering in public schools and libraries.

The ALA's executive board voted on Wednesday to pursue legal action and is still working out the details of the brief and the timing of the filing.

The filtering amendment, which was attached to a sweeping appropriations bill that passed in December, would force schools and libraries that receive federal funds to use some sort of filtering technology to weed out visual depictions of material deemed inappropriate for children. Schools and libraries have three months to submit their filtering plans.

Immediately after the bill passed, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ALA vowed to challenge it in court, saying it stifled First Amendment rights by blocking content.

In its suit, the ALA will focus on the effect the law will have on all libraries, arguing that the requirement could further widen the so-called digital divide. Critics of mandatory filtering argue that the requirement forces people who rely on public computers for Internet access to see only pre-screened content--a restriction that those with home computers don't have.

The ALA is one of several groups that have challenged tech restrictions on free speech in the past. However, the group will likely pursue legal action on its own this time because of its broad focus on all libraries. The ACLU, on the other hand, is expected to address only public libraries. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a vocal opponent of mandatory filtering, doesn't plan to sign on as a plaintiff at this point but instead will provide research and support.

Filtering software has been criticized, particularly because it sometimes blocks material that's not controversial, such as information on health care or political candidates. Critics of the bill fear that the measure could block school children from seeing educational material.

The ALA has been vocal and active about free speech issues. Five years ago, it joined a successful challenge to the Communications Decency Act, which would have regulated Web content deemed harmful to minors had the Supreme Court not declared it unconstitutional. And most recently, it filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Napster case, arguing that shutting down the service could have chilling consequences for any entity that catalogs information for others to use, including libraries and search engines.