Children’s Internet Protection Act clears Senate Commerce Committee

Thursday, June 24, 1999

A bill that would require public schools and libraries to install filtering software on their computers in order to receive federal funding for Internet hookups unanimously cleared the Senate Commerce Committee by voice vote yesterday.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, introduced on Jan. 19, seeks to provide “a baseline of protection” for children, said co-sponsor Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “No issue is more important to America than protecting our children.”

At the hearing, McCain and co-sponsor Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., introduced a more detailed version of their measure. The bill would require both public schools and libraries to submit “certification” that they are taking certain steps to prevent minors from accessing certain material.

Under the bill, public schools must certify that they have installed “technology” that filters obscenity and child pornography. In addition, a school must certify that it “is enforcing a policy to ensure the operation of the technology during any use of such computers by minors.”

The Children's Internet Protection Act would impose similar requirements on public libraries, depending on whether a library has one or more than one computer with Internet access.

A public library with only one Internet-linked computer would be required to certify that it is enforcing a policy that prohibits minors from accessing obscenity and child pornography. Public libraries with more than one Internet-linked computer would be responsible for also installing blocking software.

In addition, the bill provides that public schools and libraries “may” use filtering software to block material that either the school board or the library deems to be “inappropriate for minors.” While the bill does not define the phrase “inappropriate for minors,” it stipulates that a “minor” is anyone under the age of 17.

Distinctions among categories of materials labeled as obscenity, child pornography or “inappropriate for minors” are important for First Amendment purposes. Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that obscenity and child pornography constitute categories of speech unprotected under the First Amendment. The category of materials labeled “inappropriate for minors” is not such a recognized exception.

The original version of the McCain-Hollings bill required public schools and libraries to install blocking software to protect children from material that is “harmful to minors” – a category more encompassing than obscenity or child pornography.

McCain stated at the hearing: “This [current] approach provides a minimum floor for what must be blocked — that material which is patently illegal — while providing local authorities the broadest latitude to block other material like hate speech and racist material, how-to manuals on bomb making, and information on illegal drugs.”

The American Library Association stated in a news release that “the bill as approved still disregards local decision-making processes and places librarians in the precarious position of enforcer.”

Claudette Tennant, assistant director the ALA's Washington office, says that the new version of the Children's Internet Protection Act still raises First Amendment concerns. “We are still concerned about a bill that creates a federal mandate in the form of a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.

“Local entities should and are addressing the problems that arise with minors accessing illegal materials,” she said. “There is no filter out there that filters out only obscenity and child pornography. We don't want to abridge the rights of adults in efforts to further the laudable goal of protecting children.”

The free-standing bill now heads to the Senate floor. A related bill in the House was approved as an amendment to a juvenile justice bill in the House last week.