Libraries and Web Porn

If it were up to Congress, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) would control what people see on computer terminals in public libraries. That law, passed in 2000, requires libraries to install "filtering" software on their public-access computers to help keep pornography out.

The law has been challenged by the American Library Association (ALA) and a Supreme Court decision is expected by summer.

An oddly framed argument keeps resurfacing in the debate: Do such filters violate free speech, as the ALA maintains, or do they serve to protect children from smut? Why can't the two goals, each worthy of defense, work side by side?

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The high court's history on Internet censorship rightly tends toward protecting free speech. At the same time, CIPA's challengers point to a real problem - that the filtering software doesn't always screen nonporn websites well, sometimes preventing a user from viewing constitutionally protected material, while letting some offensive material through anyway.

Just as libraries make conscious choices about which books and magazines to offer, so filters can help them eliminate Internet sites the library doesn't want to carry. Better filtering technology would help. But with so much being added to the Web every day, even the most advanced filters are unlikely to be 100 percent effective.

Most libraries already have policies to deal with the flow of Internet porn. And the CIPA allows an adult to request the filters be turned off. Libraries can also responsibly separate computers available to children from those for adults. That's done at 25 percent of libraries.

Whatever the high court decides, it should ensure libraries can tailor the decision to meet their individual needs.

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