- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 5 (UPI) — The Supreme Court, in what could become a landmark free speech case, heard argument Wednesday on whether a federal law that forces public libraries to install Internet filters on their personal computers violates the First Amendment.

A lower court has ruled that it does.

The Supreme Court should hand down a decision reversing or upholding the lower court — or ruling a different way entirely — before the justices recess for the summer in late June or early July.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires telecommunications companies to provide Internet access to public schools and public libraries at a discount.

The discount amounted to about $58.5 million for the 12 months ending last July.

A separate federal law, the Library Services and Technology Act, also gives federal assistance to libraries in the form of grants to link to the Internet. In fiscal 2002, the aid amounted to more than $149 million.

Beginning in 1998, however, some members of Congress began to contend that instead of performing an educational service, Internet-connected computers at libraries were serving up online pornography.

Congress then passed the Children's Internet Protection Act. Under the law, a library cannot receive aid under the two funding programs unless it installs a filter that keeps "all persons" from accessing obscenity or child pornography, and keeps children from accessing anything that is "harmful to minors."

However, a group of libraries, associations, patrons and Web site publishers filed suit against the law.

Their suit contended that CIPA forced libraries to violate the First Amendment, and placed an unconstitutional restriction on the libraries' own free speech rights.

A three-judge trial court in Philadelphia ruled for the challengers, saying that Congress could not use the funding power to force the states to do something unconstitutional.

The Bush administration then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

In a brief to the high court, the administration contended that computer filters are a "constitutionally permissible" way to exercise control over the kinds of materials federal funding provides the public.

The administration's top courtroom lawyer, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, argued the case for the government, which contends that the library restrictions apply only to speech on government property, which is not a public forum.

Washington attorney Paul Smith represented the American Library Association and the rest of the coalition of challengers. The challengers contend that Internet access is different from printed material, and therefore involves a public forum.

Under Supreme Court First Amendment precedent, the government is not allowed to use viewpoint-based discrimination in a genuine public forum.

(No. 02-361, United States of America et al vs. the American Library Association et al)

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