Arkansas legislator pulls Internet filtering bill for revision

Thursday, January 21, 1999

A bill in the Arkansas legislature that would require all public schools and libraries in the state to install filtering software on their computers to prevent people from accessing “sexually explicit or inappropriate” material has been pulled for revision by its sponsor.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Henry Wilkins IV last week, originally provided that “school districts shall install the necessary programs in computers owned by the district to prevent staff and students from accessing sexually explicit or inappropriate material on the Internet.”

The measure also would have required public libraries to install similar software “to prevent staff and patrons of the library from accessing sexually explicit or inappropriate material … .”

The legislation did not define “inappropriate.”

Wilkins, a Methodist minister, said that he has “pulled the legislation to make revisions” and will reintroduce it next week.

The General Assembly's education committee had been scheduled to debate the merits of the bill today. Wilkins says that discussion will be delayed until he submits the revised version.

“I want to compare this bill with existing statutory and case law to see how they are written and make sure that the new version will pass constitutional review,” Wilkins said.

David Burt, president of Filtering Facts, supports Wilkins' decision to revise the bill. “The legislation as written was worded too vaguely,” he said.

Larry Ottinger, an attorney with People for the American Way, says the legislation is “definitely problematic.”

“This measure raises serious constitutional and policy concerns,” he said.

Burt says the legislation should incorporate some type of “harmful-to-minors standard” which will make clear that the legislation applies only to minors.

Wilkins said he pulled the bill after talking with several people who suggested it might not stand up in court. He said he also received several letters and e-mails from people with suggestions for improving the measure.

His intent, says Wilkins, is “to protect children from accidentally happening upon Web sites that are inappropriate for them.”

Burt says he supports some version of this legislation and thinks that many more states will consider similar measures. “I fully expect at least one other state to pass legislation like this in the coming year,” he said.

However, Ottinger says that legislators should heed the federal court decision in Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library. In that Virginia decision, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that a public library's policy of requiring filters for all patrons — adults and minors alike — infringed on First Amendment free-speech rights.

“I would hope that the decision in Loudoun County would provide guidance to legislators so that they understand that material on the Internet is protected by the First Amendment, and that policies mandating filtering of the Internet must meet First Amendment standards,” Ottinger said.