- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

The Supreme Court yesterday rejected claims of censorship and upheld a federal law that requires federally funded libraries to block Internet pornography sites from children by equipping its computers with filtering software.

“To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance,” said the main opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

“Especially because public libraries have traditionally excluded pornographic material from their other collections, Congress could reasonably impose a parallel limitation on its Internet assistance programs,” he wrote in endorsing the required use of pornography filters.

The high-court majority rejected claims by the American Library Association and others that the Children’s Internet Protection Act forces librarians to be censors and noted the law allows librarians to unblock filters upon request by adults.

Judith Krug of the American Library Association predicted that many libraries would take Chief Justice Rehnquist up on his challenge and turn down money rather than install filters.

“We can’t govern ourselves effectively if we don’t have information available. It’s not up to the filtering companies to decide,” she said.

Rita Thompson-Joyner, assistant librarian and director for lifelong learning for D.C. Public Libraries, said the District’s libraries will comply because “we can’t afford to forgo federal funding,” while other area librarians doubted the ruling would affect their operations.

“Because of the way we use [government] funding, we do not anticipate having to put filters on the computers we have now,” said Lois Kirkpatrick, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Public Library system.

Kay Ecelbarger, chief of the collections department for the Montgomery County Public Library system, agreed, saying her libraries would wait to see what the Federal Communications Commission said was the impact of the ruling, before making any changes.

The chief justice’s opinion upholding the law — signed in December 2000 but never put into force — won only three other votes, from Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. However, the judgment was 6-3 because the “plurality” was joined in approving the outcome by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer.

Dissenters were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Two previous laws attempting to regulate online porn have been overturned.

The American Center for Law & Justice and the Family Research Council praised the court for denying a First Amendment exemption for pornography, while the American Civil Liberties Union led a parade of groups that found solace only in the court’s provision allowing adults to opt out of what the groups called censorship.

The justices said Congress simply decides how taxpayer money is to be spent when it requires libraries receiving $200 million in federal assistance to install blocking software, just as it did in barring federal family-planning funds to organizations that provide abortion referrals.

“The [funding] programs were intended to help public libraries fulfill their traditional role of obtaining material of requisite and appropriate quality for educational and informational purposes. Congress may certainly insist that these public funds be spent for the purposes for which they were authorized,” the main opinion said.

In his dissent, Justice Souter said deciding what books to buy is a matter of limited resources, but blocking adults access to porn sites to protect children is like censoring books already in stock.

“Removal of books or selective blocking by controversial subject matter is not a function of limited resources and less likely … to reflect an assessment of esthetic or scholarly merit,” the dissent said. “The difference between choices to keep out and choices to throw out is thus enormous.”

Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and a sponsor of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, said the decision used the common-sense rule that taxpayers should not subsidize pornography.

“This law doesn’t censor anything, but it does refuse to subsidize pornography that’s aimed at kids,” said Mr. Istook, who berated the ACLU and American Library Association for blocking the law’s implementation with a lawsuit.

Jay Sekulow, American Center for Law & Justice chief counsel, filed a brief in the case for his organization and nine members of Congress. He called the decision a breakthrough in regulating pornography on the Internet.

“It is now clear that public libraries must actively protect the well-being of children, including the type of materials available to them via the Internet. The ruling makes clear that there is not a First Amendment exemption to Internet pornography aimed at children,” Mr. Sekulow said.

The ACLU saw a silver lining in the decision.

“The justices essentially rewrote the law to minimize its effect on adult library patrons,” said Chris Hansen, a senior ACLU staff lawyer, who said the ruling is not clear on some points but implies that patrons who want to unblock a site need not identify themselves.

• Staff writers Arlo Wagner and Judith Person contributed to this report.

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