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Supreme Court backs library Net filters

The U.S. high court supports a law that requires public libraries to filter out Internet pornography, ruling that the law does not violate free-speech rights.

In a blow to an alliance of librarians and free speech advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a law that requires libraries to filter Web content or lose certain federal funds.

The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000, was designed to shield minors from seeing sexually explicit material on the Web. But opponents, including the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, had challenged the law, saying it violated the free-speech rights of adults and could prevent minors from getting information about topics such as breast cancer or the Holocaust.

In a 6-3 decision that was released Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with those criticisms, saying that libraries could turn off the software upon request, so that people could have more access to Web material.

"Concerns over filtering software's tendency to erroneously 'overblock' access to constitutionally protected speech that falls outside the categories software users intend to block are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled," the opinion stated.

The ruling could affect millions of people who log onto the Internet from libraries. CIPA requires libraries to filter out material deemed harmful to minors or risk losing federal funds, including the popular E-rate program and other money that helps libraries connect to the Internet and catalog their offerings.

In upholding the law, the court said protecting young library users from inappropriate material was a substantial government interest and that filtering software is currently the best way to do that.

"No clearly superior or better-fitting alternative to Internet filters has been presented," the opinion stated.

Monday's decision reverses an earlier ruling by a special panel of federal judges that had said the law was unconstitutional. In that ruling, handed down in May 2002, the judges blasted filtering software, saying it both over- and under-blocked Web content.

Filtering companies applauded the Supreme Court's decision and support of their software.

"They recognized how the technology works," David Burt, a spokesman for filtering company N2H2, said. "They understand that there are limits to the software--it does sometimes overblock--but that can be overcome by disabling the filter."

Free-speech advocates criticized the ruling as a setback for First Amendment rights on the Web.

"The Supreme Court today dealt a tremendous blow to the free-speech rights of child and adult library patrons and Internet publishers by supporting Congress' mandate that libraries must install faulty Internet blocking software to obtain federal funding or discounts," Attorney Kevin Bankston, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement.

It's unclear how the ruling will affect libraries' current filtering practices. About half of all public libraries already have blocking software installed on at least some machines.

The ruling marks the first major setback for challengers of federal laws designed to curb Web content; they have successfully fought to reverse other Internet content crackdowns.

Under a challenge from free-speech groups, the Supreme Court tossed out parts of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. In March, a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia struck down the Child Online Protection Act--a law that would punish commercial Web site operators who do not block minors from sexually explicit material on their sites--on free speech grounds.