Supreme Court to hear filtering case

The high court says it will hear a challenge to a controversial law placing filtering software in public libraries.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court said on Tuesday that it would hear a challenge to a controversial law placing filtering software in public libraries.

In May, a three-judge panel in Philadelphia ruled that a federal law designed to encourage the use of filtering software violated library patrons' rights to access legitimate, non-pornographic Web sites.

Called the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the law represents the third attempt by the federal government to restrict online pornography.

Congress' first attempt was the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court tossed out as an unacceptable infringement of the First Amendment. The second, the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, remains sidelined by an injunction handed down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Bush administration has urged the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's decision and uphold the law.

"Until recently, the worst kind of pornography was mainly limited to red-light districts or restricted to adults or confined by geography, isolated by shame," President Bush said last month. "With the Internet, pornography is now instantly available to any child."

CIPA author Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., blamed "liberal activists" for challenging the law.

"The Supreme Court has historically recognized that Congress is justified in restricting how our taxpayer dollars are spent," Istook said in a statement. "This law only deals with restrictions on how tax dollars are used. It doesn't censor anything, but it does refuse to subsidize pornography that's aimed at kids."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued to overturn the law on behalf of the American Library Association, said it was confident of victory. "We are optimistic that the Supreme Court will agree that the government cannot force adults to use technology that routinely blocks access to a wide range of valuable web sites," said Ann Beeson, an ACLU staff attorney.

The government's written brief is due on Dec. 27, with the ACLU's reply due a month later.

At stake for the nation's roughly 40,000 public libraries are hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, which are used to automate services and pay for Internet access. Under CIPA, libraries must install filtering software only if they choose to accept federal funds.

"We find that, given the crudeness of filtering technology, any technology protection measure mandated by CIPA will necessarily block access to a substantial amount of speech whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest," the Philadelphia court said in May.

The Supreme Court's order Tuesday notes "probable jurisdiction" in the case, which sets the stage for oral arguments over the next six months and a decision by June or July 2003.