Congressman says his Net filter bill won’t restrict adults

Monday, July 19, 1999

Rep. Ernest Est...
Rep. Ernest Estook, R-Okla.

An Oklahoma congressman says he will introduce an Internet filtering bill tomorrow that will both protect children from harmful online material and pass constitutional scrutiny.

Called the Child Protection Act of 1999, Republican Rep. Ernest Istook's measure would require any elementary or secondary school or public library that receives federal funding for Internet hook-ups to install software “determined to be adequately designed to protect minors from obtaining access to any obscene information or child pornography.”

One of the differences between Istook's measure and other filtering bills before Congress is that his bill only targets computer use by minors and is designed to block only obscenity and child pornography.

Micah Swafford, Istook's press secretary, said: “Our bill only regulates computers that minors have access to and it only regulates obscenity and child pornography rather than material that is harmful to minors or inappropriate.

“Because some of the other measures have regulated adult usage of computers, they are probably unconstitutional,” Swafford said. “Our measure will not restrict the free-speech rights of adults.”

In a letter sent to his colleagues earlier this month, Istook said that because the courts had blocked the Child Online Protection Act — a federal law designed to protect children from online smut — additional legislation was needed to protect the nation's youth. “Our children are still in danger,” he wrote.

Istook stressed in his letter that the bill would only block material that is not protected by the First Amendment: obscenity and child pornography.

However, Istook's measure recognizes that sometimes filtering software blocks constitutionally protected material. For this reason, the bill would allow the temporary “interruption” of filtering software to allow a minor to access material that is not obscene or child pornography as long as the minor is “under the direct supervision of an adult” designated by the school or library.

Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney for the People for the American Way, says the bill is unconstitutional. “It is true that obscenity and child pornography are exceptions under the First Amendment free-speech protections,” he said. “But the fact is that these filters are blocking out information that is not obscene, not pornographic and that is often mainstream information. We know from the Mainstream Loudoun case that filtering software blocks a lot of constitutionally protected material, such as sex education sites.

“No filtering software, software company employees or public employees can determine on their own whether material is legally obscene or not,” Ottinger said. “That is a determination that has to be made by the courts applying community standards.”

Ottinger says that filtering legislation has become a political issue where legislators “are listening to the polls rather than paying much attention to the law and the First Amendment.”

“We've got to defeat federal legislation like this,” he said. “This may be heading to the courts again.”

Istook introduced a similar measure last year as an amendment to larger labor appropriations bill. The bill unanimously cleared a House subcommittee but was never voted on by the full House.