Magazine article American Libraries

Why Recent Court Rulings Don't Change the Rules on Filtering

Magazine article American Libraries

Why Recent Court Rulings Don't Change the Rules on Filtering

Article excerpt

Several libraries have been sued recently on the grounds that their internet filtering programs are unconstitutional, raising questions in the library community about whether the rules have changed about blocking software.

The short answer is no.

These fact-specific cases arise from the ruling in the 2003 decision in United States v. American Library Association, in which the Supreme Court upheld the Children's Internet Protection Act. CIPA requires that public libraries receiving certain federal funds use internet filters on public computers to block materials deemed to be visually obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors; the high court upheld the statute with the caveat that adults would still be able to access constitutionally protected material (AL, Aug. 2003, p. 12-15).

In writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained:

When a patron encounters a blocked site, he need only ask a librarian to unblock it or (at least in the case of adults) disable the filter. ... The Solicitor General confirmed that a "librarian can, in response to a request from a patron, unblock the filtering mechanism altogether," and further explained that a patron would not "have to explain ... why he was asking a site to be unblocked or the filtering to be disabled."

Since then, federal court cases have addressed a narrower issue: whether the implementation of a particular library's filtering policy is constitutional.

In November 2006 the ACLU of Washington filed suit against the North Central Regional Library District (NCRL), alleging that the library violated the First Amendment by refusing to disable blocking software at the request of adult patrons (as stipulated in the CIPA decision). After six years of litigation, the federal district court held on April 10 that NCRL's filtering policy does not violate the US constitution, partly because the branch libraries are "relatively small in size and only one has a partition separating the children's portion of the library from the remainder of the library."

This court decision, however, has little impact beyond that particular library. The decision was by one district judge reviewing one particular set of facts in one library system, and was not published by the court, which further reduces the weight of the ruling. …

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