FEW would argue against shielding children from the smut polluting the Internet. The questions are how to do it, and who should do it.
To take the last question first, Congress has decided, repeatedly, that government should have a direct hand in this task. Since 1996, it has passed a succession of laws to protect children from online pornography.
Each, in turn, has ended up in the courts, challenged as a restriction on free speech. One law was struck down by the US Supreme Court; a second is due to be ruled on by the court this year; a third just landed in federal court in Philadelphia.
This last case could be a critical test of whether government can carve out for itself a constitutionally defensible role in preventing children's access to Internet porn.
The law at issue, the Children's Internet Protection Act, was signed into law two years ago. It requires libraries and schools that receive federal funds to equip their computers with filtering software to screen out smut. Only the part of the law dealing with libraries is being challenged.
The earlier laws, by contrast, tried to target pornographic sites themselves and ran afoul of First Amendment arguments that adults would be denied access to material they have a legal right to view or read.
The same argument is being made in the library case. Adults who use filtered computers in libraries would presumably be restricted to websites appropriate for children. But it's not quite that simple.
For one thing, even a filtered Web can still provide access to a vast amount of information. And what difference is there between a library's exclusion of smut from its print collection and excluding some porn websites from its Internet offerings?
Any restriction of adult access to adult sites has to be weighed against the social good of protecting children from the Web's all-too-bountiful porn. And aren't the porn sites more about commerce in dirty pictures than free speech in any case?
Complexities enter in here, too, of course. The filtering software libraries would use, while it's improving, is far from perfect. It would almost certainly block some websites that are informational even educational while letting through some deceptively worded porn sites. Perhaps libraries should be allowed a middle ground some computers with filters specifically for children's use; others unfiltered for adults.
The Supreme Court, which will have the final say, may also find this law overly restrictive. It has tended to take a strong First Amendment stand in these cases.
In any case, the battle against online pornography should be sustained in homes, schools, libraries, and, yes, in Congress.