Congressional efforts to protect children from pornography on the Internet have met less than an enthusiastic response from the US Supreme Court in recent years.
The justices struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act and remanded to a lower court a case challenging the 1998 Child Online Protection Act.
Both cases highlighted the difficulty of striking the proper constitutional balance in a society that seeks to protect its children from offensive, sexually explicit material while at the same time upholding core principles of free speech.
Wednesday, the high court begins examining whether Congress's latest attempt in this area, the Children's Internet Protection Act, is impermissible censorship or a justifiable attempt to shield American youths from harm.
"It is called the Children's Internet Protection Act, but what most people fail to realize is that it applies to every computer terminal in the library," says Maurice Freedman, president of the American Library Association, which is challenging the constitutionality of the law.
"Everybody who wants to use a computer terminal in a library is forced to lose access to constitutionally protected speech," Mr. Freedman says. "That is not what the public library is about in the United States."
The law requires that any public library receiving federal aid must install Internet- filtering software on their public-access computers to prevent the display of obscene content, child pornography, or other materials that might be harmful to minors.
Rather than simply mandating the use of Internet filters, Congress passed the law under its spending-clause power. In effect, the law gives public libraries a choice: accept the federal aid and enact the Internet-filter provision, or forfeit the aid.
A group of libraries, library associations, patrons, and Web publishers are challenging the law, saying that Internet filters censor more than just illegal pornography and material harmful to minors. They block constitutionally protected forms of speech, while frequently failing to screen out some of the most offensive forms of Internet smut.
A special panel of three federal judges struck down the law last May, saying it forced libraries to violate the First Amendment rights of their patrons.
In urging the US Supreme Court to reverse the decision, Solicitor General Theodore Olson says librarians have the authority to prevent the public library from becoming an adult bookstore.
"Just as public libraries have broad discretion to exclude pornography from their print collections, they have broad discretion to exclude pornography from their Internet collections," he writes in his brief to the court.
The three-judge panel disagreed with this view. They ruled that there is a fundamental difference between a limited body of printed material housed in a library and a computer terminal capable of gaining access to virtually unlimited information and materials over the Internet.
The panel said the government does not have the power to broadly censor speech in a way that will almost certainly block some constitutionally protected information.
Freedman of the American Library Association says the proper role for libraries and librarians is to help their patrons become responsible users of the Internet. "Ultimately, it is the individual's responsibility because filters don't work," he says.
There are many examples, Freedman says. Information about NASA's Mars explorer program was deleted from library Internet access because when the two words Mars and explorer are merged, they form the word "sex."
Likewise, library computer searches for information about Super Bowl XXX are often fruitless because the filtering technology cannot differentiate between the use of Roman numerals to specify a championship football game and the use of three X's to designate a pornographic video.
Solicitor General Olson says that despite the apparent over-inclusiveness of many filter programs, they remain an effective means to screen out pornography.
"Public libraries may reasonably conclude that it best furthers their missions to use a resource that is effective in keeping out pornography, even if that resource keeps out some material that is not pornographic," Olson says.
He says only a very small percentage of all websites are erroneously blocked, and that such information can often be found on other sites or by obtaining access to the Internet via other (non-public library) computers.