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Court to hear Net filtering challenge

Civil rights advocates will argue that a law requiring schools and libraries to filter Web content or forgo federal funding is unconstitutional.

A group of free-speech advocates is gearing up for a trial that could determine the constitutionality of a law requiring schools and libraries to filter Web content or forgo federal funding.

A three-judge panel at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will hear arguments Monday regarding the controversial censorship law, known as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Signed into law in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton, CIPA requires schools and libraries to block visual depictions of pornography, obscenity or other material deemed offensive to children to qualify for funds set aside by the government to help pay for computers and Internet access.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA) are challenging the law, saying it violates the First Amendment. The challengers also argue that it discriminates against people who rely on libraries for Internet access by forcing them to view filtered material even if they are adults.

"This law will affect the poor and the people who don't have access to the Internet except through their public library," said Judith Krug, director at the ALA office for intellectual freedom. "As American citizens and under the First Amendment, we have the right to access the legal information and ideas that we need and want, and filters are going to preclude us from doing that."

Chuck Simms, an attorney with New York law firm Proskauer Rose who is co-counsel for the ACLU, could not be immediately reached for comment.

CIPA is the latest censorship law to be challenged in the courts by civil-rights groups concerned about potential censorship online. Previous online-porn laws have been struck down by the courts, including the Communications Decency Act, a law that would have made it illegal to deliver indecent material over the Web. Five years ago, the Supreme Court overturned major portions of the bill, saying such content is considered protected speech for adults.

Under CIPA, libraries and schools must show by October that the filters are installed to receive education rate, or e-rate, funding. The e-rate program is designed to help wire the nation's 84,000 public schools and 16,000 public libraries.

"We want libraries to continue to be places where speech is free and where reading is not regulated," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is acting as counsel to the ALA and ACLU case. "This law is a way of basically strong-arming through federal dollars...arming libraries into controlling and restricting content coming over the Internet."