- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

In 2000, Congress identified a grave national problem and took firm action to squelch it. Alarmed that some youthful library patrons had gained access to online pornography, it passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The problem was solved, the panic subsided, and we all went on to other worries, serene in the knowledge children were no longer being exposed to vile smut.

In fact, though, the measure never took effect, thanks to a court challenge that held it in abeyance. So for the last 21/2 half years, American kids have had none of the protection that Congress thought so essential — namely, federally mandated software filters that block access to inappropriate sites.

Children and parents have had to rely purely on the common sense and professional judgment of the people who run our public and school libraries. Given the lack of concern evident among the American people during that period, this approach apparently has been something short of a disaster.

But Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the CIPA. So now, we no longer will be able to trust the discretion of local librarians who deal with such matters every day and have been doing so for years. Instead, public and school libraries getting federal funds, which is nearly all of them, will have to defer to the dictates of members of Congress who insist that one approach will suit every locality from Biloxi to Berkeley.

From listening to advocates of the law, you would assume American libraries are an exclusive property of Larry Flynt — where anything goes, and the raunchier, the better. Following the court’s decision, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, one of the bill’s sponsors, suggested something dramatic has occurred: “Parents can now feel secure that when they entrust their children to a public school or library, there is some level of safety for children when they go online.”

Those who run our libraries were always free to use filters, but until Congress butted in, they chose not to. As of 2000, before the law was passed, only 17 percent of public libraries had installed the filters on any of their Internet terminals, and only 7 percent had installed them on all their computers. Librarians had discovered what even the Supreme Court admits: These filters are crude instruments that often censor innocuous material while letting in bad stuff.

Most libraries had found better remedies. Some put the blocking software only on computers reserved for kids. Some allow children access to unfiltered computers only with their parents’ consent. Another option is to place computers in public areas so librarians can easily monitor what kids are doing. Some libraries, however, put unfiltered terminals in out-of-the-way areas so patrons won’t be exposed to graphic images against their will.

All these approaches tried to protect kids from pornography while upholding the right of adults to see and read material that is perfectly legal. They were also tailored to fit the different standards of different communities, and could be altered whenever the locals felt the need for a change.

But the CIPA doesn’t permit such flexibility. It says all computers that connect to the Internet have to be equipped with filters designed to block obscenity, child pornography and any other “visual depictions” that are “harmful to minors.” An option rejected by 93 percent of libraries is now the sole option.

The court concedes that filters will prevent patrons from visiting many legitimate sites and says: So what? Libraries, it notes, have always exercised judgment about which books to buy and which to exclude, and those choices don’t amount to censorship.

But that’s a false parallel. Filters limit access to something libraries already have: the Internet. Sealing off part of it, noted Justice David Souter in his dissent, is akin to “buying a book and then keeping it from adults lacking an acceptable ‘purpose,’ or to buying an encyclopedia and then cutting out pages with anything thought to be unsuitable for all adults.”

The saving grace of the law, the court said, is that adults can always ask that the filter be turned off. But the law itself doesn’t say such requests must be accommodated — only that they “may” be. Even then, the filters may be disabled only for adults who have “bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” In other words, you can see anything the government thinks you should see.

“A law that prohibits reading without official consent, like a law that prohibits speaking without official consent,” said Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent, “constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition.” But this court is forging a new tradition.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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