Columbine tragedy fuels push for filtering measure in Senate

Friday, May 28, 1999

The tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., has provided ammunition for supporters of an Internet filtering bill in the U.S. Senate.

All of those who testified before last week's Senate Commerce Committee hearing cited the tragedy as evidence of the need for Internet filtering in public schools and libraries.

“It is almost too obvious for anybody to pass up combining this bill with Columbine,” said Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel with the National Law Center for Children and Families.

“The Columbine tragedy highlights the need for parents and schools to restrict kids' ability to use their time online viewing gloom-and-doom Web sites, sexually explicit Web sites and violent Web sites,” he said.

Even though the hearing featured virtually unanimous support for filtering legislation, some free-speech experts, who weren't invited to testify, criticize the bill while acknowledging the that the tragedy in Littleton has given the measure some momentum.

“There is no doubt that Columbine has given a sharper edge to what is, at best, a blunt instrument of speech restriction,” said Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman.

“Certainly, Columbine and the Georgia shooting have given a real push to a legislative proposal that should really be placed in the trash can,” he said.

Larry Ottinger, attorney with People for the American Way, agreed, saying that “politicians are using the tragedy in a cynical way to push an ideological agenda. Unfortunately, it seems that the tragedy has given a boost to mandatory filtering efforts in Congress.”

The Children's Internet Protection Act, introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ernest Hollings, R- S.C., on Jan. 19, would require public schools to install blocking software on all computers with Internet access. It would mandate that public libraries install such software on at least one computer. If a library has only a single computer terminal with Internet access, it would have to filter that access or employ a “reasonably effective alternative means to keep minors from accessing material on the Internet that is deemed harmful to minors.”

The primary impetus for the Children's Internet Protection Act and a related bill last year was protecting children from pornography. Now, filtering supporters cite a wider array of “harmful” material on the Web, including hate speech, bomb-making instructions, guns, drug usage, religious bigotry and violent images.

In his opening statement at the May 20 Commerce Committee hearing McCain stated that “as recent events in Colorado have so tragically demonstrated, there are many other Internet content issues [other than pornography] that parents and society should be aware of and concerned about.”

Peter Nickerson, CEO and president of N2H2, Inc., a Seattle-based company that provides Internet filtering services, suggested that “perhaps the only positive effect of that terrible incident [at Columbine] is increased awareness of the need to filter inappropriate content on the Internet.”

Written testimony submitted to the committee hearing by Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate speech on the Internet, speculated that “The two youths who opened fire … may well have been inspired, in part, by neo-Nazi propaganda they encountered on the Net. It seems clear that they found plans for building pipe bombs and other weapons there.”

And Howard P. Berkowitz, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, invoked Littleton in noting that “the Internet offers both propaganda and how-to manuals for those seeking to act out fantasies of intolerance and violence.”

Berkowitz said that the “voluntary use of software” such as his group's own filter, HateFilter, would not run into the same constitutional concerns as legislation calling for filtering. “We believe it is unlikely that courts will allow school libraries to require filters on all computers available for student use, but we welcome the fact that this Committee is wrestling with these very difficult and important issues,” he said in written testimony.

At least some free-speech advocates find use of the Columbine tragedy distasteful.

“It troubles me that Columbine is being used by everybody to push their own agenda,” McMasters said. “We do not need the rationing and parceling out of speech according to federal fiat. We don't need members of Congress and other policymakers using the tragedy of Columbine to disinvest the younger generation of their First Amendment heritage.”

Ottinger said, “It is absurd for anyone to claim Net filtering is the answer to school violence. Clearly, if parents weren't aware of pipe bombs being made in a garage, it is hard to see how censoring the Internet would make a difference.”

“The student violence at Columbine and other places will help this bill pass,” the National Law Center's Taylor said. “The natural lesson from Columbine is that we can't wait for kids to get more mature or for better educational programs to develop. We need to get the violence out of kids' hands now,” he said.

The Commerce Committee has not yet set another hearing on the bill.