- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

Three federal judges in Philadelphia yesterday struck down a law that would have required public libraries to use Internet filters to block pornography.

In a 195-page ruling, the judges held that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), signed into law in 2000, was unconstitutional because the filters can also block access to Web sites that contain protected speech.

"Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions will necessarily restrict patrons' access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment," 3rd U.S. Circuit Judge Edward K. Becker and U.S. District Judges John P. Fullam and Harvey Bartle III wrote in their decision.

Barbara Comstock, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, said yesterday that the agency is "disappointed" by the panel's decision and is considering an appeal, which must be filed within 20 days of the ruling.

Any appeal of the three-judge panel's decision will go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is required to hear challenges to this law, another Justice spokesman said.

The lawsuit that resulted in CIPA being overturned was brought in March 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the following plaintiffs: the American Library Association and member libraries; a 15-year-old girl and her aunt, both of Philadelphia, who do not have Internet access at home; two candidates for Congress whose Web sites were blocked by filters; and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planetout.com, a leading Web site for homosexuals. The Internet sites of the latter groups were blocked by some filters, said Lynne Bradley, the ALA's director of government relations.

"We're very pleased with the ruling that came down these filters don't work and give a false sense of security," Ms. Bradley said in an interview.

Some of the gravest dangers to children using the Web, she said, are chat rooms, where filters are not even involved. "If children are determined to access certain information on the Internet, filters won't stop them the safest way is to educate young kids" on appropriate use of the Internet, Ms. Bradley added.

But Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, called the federal ruling in the case, American Library Association v. United States of America, "profoundly regrettable."

Mr. Connor noted that the judges, in their ruling, said they were concerned about possible embarrassment and a loss of anonymity for library patrons who might want to view Web sites blocked by the filtering software and who would have to request that the sites be opened. He said this is "clear evidence of the existence of a double standard in the federal courts."

"The protection of our children far outweighs any slight embarrassment or inconvenience associated with having to ask that sites be unblocked," Mr. Connor said.

He added: "The courts are overzealous in protecting kids from the so-called 'dangers' of religion. But they are fully willing to expose them to the perils of pornography."

The Children's Internet Protection Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, and signed into law by President Clinton, would have required all U.S. public libraries to install Internet filters by July or risk losing federal funding.

Most, if not all, of the nation's libraries provide Internet access. Ms. Bradley said some already have the filtering software, but she was unable to give a percentage.

But the American Library Association opposed the new law, contending it was unenforceable, unconstitutional, vague and too broad.

The ALA and other plaintiffs said the law denied low-income people without home computers access to protected information, as the Internet filters could mistakenly block Web sites on issues such as breast cancer and homosexuality.

Ms. Bradley said the federal court ruling "shows that decisions" about whether to block questionable material on the Internet "should be mandated at local levels," not by Congress.

What's more, she said, "it recognizes all public libraries should have the opportunity to benefit from federal funds."

Spokesmen for Mr. McCain and Mr. Hollings were unable to say yesterday whether the senators will try to rework the legislation so it would pass constitutional muster.

Mr. Connor of the FRC said he anticipates the ruling of the three-judge panel will be appealed. But he's uncertain what the final outcome will be, given that federal courts have been less than supportive of laws aimed at keeping children away from Internet pornography.

Said Ms. Bradley: "This is the second major time this kind of legislation has been overturned constitutionally." The 1996 Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it, was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and a principal author of CIPA, said he's confident the Supreme Court will "apply common sense and the Constitution and will overturn this extreme decision" by the jurists in Philadelphia.

The law is the third attempt by Congress to restrict sexually explicit materials on the Internet.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act, which would have held Internet-service providers responsible for online obscenity, was struck down by a unanimous Supreme Court.

The 1998 Children's Online Protection Act, which also sought to protect minors from exposure to online obscenity, remains in the courts. An appellate panel struck down the measure as unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court reversed some parts of the decision and sent it back for further review.

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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