- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

The people who have advanced the cause of free speech have often been wild, radical or dangerous types communists, anti-Semites, pornographers, war resisters, flag-burners, and the like. Today, storming the barricades of censorship and rejecting the demands of conformity, we have a different group of firebrands: America's librarians.
Your image of a librarian may be a prim spinster whose idea of proper communication is to put a finger to her lips and say, "Shhhh." This time, though, the librarians' message to the federal government is: "Don't you dare shush my patrons."
The battle is over government regulation of access to cyberspace. The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2001 requires all federally funded libraries and schools to install computer filters to block sites offering child pornography, obscenity or anything "harmful to minors." Noting that the Internet offers a lot of images and text that would make Hugh Hefner blush, our elected representatives decreed that libraries should prevent patrons from seeing such material, inadvertently or by choice.
This is a worthwhile goal, but in practical terms, the only way to seal off the stuff that falls outside the bounds of free speech is to seal off a lot of stuff that Americans have a right to see and produce. That's why the American Library Association went to court to challenge the law arguing that the job of librarians is to help children and adults make use of their First Amendment rights, not to violate those rights. It's also why a special federal court panel last week overturned the CIPA, finding that it was burning a lot of wheat along with the chaff.
The Internet boasts some 2 billion web pages and is growing like kudzu in a greenhouse, adding 1.5 million pages every day, or more than 1,000 a minute. Companies that sell filters can't possibly put human eyeballs on more than a microscopic fraction of those sites, so they have to rely on key words and other identifiers to figure out which ones to block.
But this is not a very accurate method. Since key word searches can't evaluate photos, dirty pictures can get through. Meanwhile, a lot of things that should get through somehow don't. One expert called by the government in this case admitted that between 6 percent and 15 percent of the sites blocked by filters didn't meet the filter companies' definition of sexually explicit material, never mind the law's.
This approach is worse than official censorship. It's officially sponsored censorship that delegates to private vendors the task of deciding what is fit to see and what is not. And the people in Washington don't even know what is being censored because filter companies treat that information as a proprietary secret. Congress told these suppliers, "We'll let you decide what to suppress, even though we don't know what you're suppressing."
The judicial panel noted that among the sites that were put off limits were those set up by a Knights of Columbus group, a Christian orphanage in Honduras, a Libertarian candidate for the California legislature, a Louisiana cancer treatment facility, a bed and breakfast in North Carolina, and Southern Alberta Fly Fishing Outfitters which may have gotten in trouble for glistening shots of naked salmon. And, wouldn't you know it, one of the library filters blocked a satirical Web site called "Dumb Laws." Like, maybe, the Children's Internet Protection Act?
The unreliability of filters, unfortunately, is in the nature of the beast. As the judges explained, the evidence showed "not only that filtering programs bar access to a substantial amount of speech on the Internet that is clearly constitutionally protected for adults and minors, but also that these programs are intrinsically unable to block only illegal Internet content while simultaneously allowing access to all protected speech." CIPA is the moral equivalent of trying to eliminate pornographic magazines by burning down every other newsstand.
So does the ruling mean libraries can do nothing to keep smut away from our children? Of course not. Even before the law was passed, libraries had created policies designed to minimize the dangers posed by the Internet without sacrificing its immense value. Some allow youngsters to use only filtered computers, while providing unfiltered access to adults. Some have policies barring patrons from looking at illegal sites, with violators losing their library privileges. Others put computers in highly visible public areas to discourage children from going to pornographic sites.
None of these alternatives is as satisfying as a foolproof technological fix, but that perfect option turns out to be a fantasy. So maybe we should learn to trust our librarians.

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