Congress may use its spending power to encourage public libraries to install filtering software on their computers to protect children from pornography on the Internet.
In a major 6-to-3 decision Monday, the US Supreme Court upheld a federal law that conditioned the receipt of federal aid to libraries upon the use of such content-blocking software.
Free-speech advocates had attacked the law as an unconstitutional form of government censorship. But the court disagreed, ruling instead that the law, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), did not violate the First Amendment rights of library patrons. In addition, the justices said the law was a valid use by Congress of its spending power.
"Most libraries already exclude pornography from their print collections because they deem it inappropriate for inclusion," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority. He says the court has not challenged those decisions by librarians on First Amendment grounds. "It would make little sense to treat libraries' judgments to block online pornography any differently, when these judgments are made for just the same reason."
The decision marks the first time in three cases that the nation's highest court has upheld an attempt by Congress to regulate Internet access to protect children. In recent years, the high court has invalidated the 1996 Communications Decency Act and blocked enforcement of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act.
In upholding CIPA, the court has carved out a constitutionally permissive means of protecting children despite warnings by free-speech advocates that core First Amendment principles were at stake.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said it should be up to local librarians to decide how or whether to use Internet filters. "Rather than allowing local decisionmakers to tailor their responses to local problems, the CIPA operates as a blunt nationwide restraint on adult access to an enormous amount of valuable information." He also writes, "The abridgment of speech is equally obnoxious whether a rule like this one is enforced by a threat of penalties or by a threat to withhold a benefit."
The majority disagreed. "CIPA does not 'penalize' libraries that choose not to install such software, or deny them the right to provide their patrons with unfiltered Internet access," Chief Justice Rehnquist says. "CIPA simply reflects Congress' decision not to subsidize their doing so."
He adds, "To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance."
Maurice Freedman, president of the American Library Association, said the decision would create "an incredible burden on local libraries." He added, "This isn't about children. It is about all the filters in the library and all the chaos that ensues."
Last year, the American Library Association, several public libraries, library patrons, and website publishers filed suit against the US government in an effort to have CIPA struck down. They argued that filters result in substantial overblocking. Tens of thousands of harmless, nonsexually explicit sites are blocked by such filters, denying library patrons access to a range of constitutionally protected information.
The suit said that librarians are aware of the problems of patrons using library computers to access sexually explicit material. But library association lawyers argued that 93 percent of librarians adopted more liberal policies to deal with the problem than the approach taken by Congress.
Government lawyers countered that the decision to install filters on public-library computers was no different from a librarian's decision to exclude certain sexually explicit books and magazines from the library's shelves. Whenever a sexually explicit magazine is excluded, it involves overblocking of constitutionally protected material as well, they argued. But this has long been an accepted exercise of a librarian's professional discretion, rather than being branded impermissible censorship, they said.
Librarians are not being forced to take a particular action, they said. The filter option becomes a requirement only if the library accepts federal aid.
Free-speech advocates countered that access to the Internet is different from access to books on a shelf. The Internet is as diverse as human thought itself, they said, while a library is a finite collection of particular works.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.