Congress's third try at legislation to protect children from online smut has run into the same difficulty as earlier efforts. Opponents say it violates the First Amendment's guarantee of a free exchange of information.
The Children's Internet Protection Act has a tighter focus than its predecessors, which courts discarded. It mandates the use of Internet filtering software in computers used by children at public schools and community libraries. If local officials balk, they risk losing federal funds.
Most of the controversy generated by the law involves its impact on libraries. Unlike school computers, those in libraries are used by adults as well as children. Filters to protect kids could become de facto censors for older patrons.
This point won't easily be overcome by the act's supporters. The groups who filed a federal suit against the act this week in Philadelphia make other points as well. They argue, correctly, that the filters are not foolproof and often screen out useful information as well as pornography - and sometimes let through porn sites with deceptively innocent names. Computer-savvy older kids find it all too easy to get around the filters.
Library groups don't like the federal government trying to dictate local policy. Many librarians argue that they have come up with their own ways to protect children while giving adults unfiltered Web access. Some designate certain machines for youngsters, or switch filters on or off depending on who's using a unit.
Constitutional and practical problems aside for a moment, the law's goals are sound. Schools should certainly take steps to make sure their technology isn't being diverted to the Web's all-too-ample porn. Libraries, which rely on public support, have a similar interest in standards of decency.
But a federal hammer isn't needed. The most important "filters" are parents and the values they instill in children. Vigilant teachers and librarians have a role too - as do technological aids. Working together, they can help young people develop interests that lie far from the Web's seamier side.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor