Florida, Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh Internet filtering proposals

Wednesday, March 15, 2000

The push to require public schools and libraries to install Internet filters has picked up steam as legislators in two more states consider measures to require the use of such software.

But a cyber rights expert criticizes the measures recently introduced in Florida and Pennsylvania, saying such Internet filtering proposals are unconstitutional.

In Florida, House Bill 1081, introduced on March 7, would require public libraries to install blocking software on half of their computers to prevent patrons from accessing “materials that contain obscene descriptions, photographs, or depictions.”

The bill provides that if a library has only one computer with Internet access, then it must be equipped with the filtering software. The measure has not yet been assigned to a committee.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering House Bill 2324, which would require both public schools and libraries to adopt acceptable-use policies. The Child Internet Protection Act would also require the use of blocking software.

The acceptable-use policies would require the “use of software programs reasonably designed to block access to material, the character of which is reasonably believed to be obscene, pornography or harmful to minors.”

The bill, introduced on Feb. 28, would also allow public schools to “adopt a school district policy that seeks to prevent student access to Internet material which is pervasively indecent and vulgar or which is not reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns, as specifically defined by the policy.”

Law professor Robert Richards, founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, takes issue with this provision. “This provision presents problems because it allows the sweeping in of too much material far beyond material that meets some legal definition, such as obscenity,” Richards said.

The Pennsylvania measure also would allow library patrons to petition library officials to review the denial of access to certain material on the Internet. A patron whose appeal failed before the library review board could appeal the decision to a judge. A judge would then hold a hearing within three days after the appeal and would issue a final order within 24 hours of the hearing.

State Rep. Allan Egolf, the main sponsor of the Child Internet Protection Act, says the goal of the bill is to “protect children from harmful material on the Internet.”

Egolf said he wanted a bill that would prevent people from accessing obscene material but also wanted a process by which people could petition for a review of a site for legitimate reasons, such as research.

“We originally thought about having unfiltered access on certain adult terminals or establishing a room with unfiltered terminals,” he said. “However, we were afraid that we might then be creating some type of adult peepshow and a bad atmosphere. Also, we had learned that in other libraries allowing adults access to such material creates problems because kids will still see the material.”

The People for the American Way sent a letter on March 8 to the chairman of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee, which is now considering the measure, outlining the group’s objections to the bill. The letter says that although the bill calls for an “acceptable-use policy,” the measure “runs contrary to the normal use of that term.”

“Normally that term refers to the adoption of rules for Internet use and education for patrons about legitimate concerns with Internet content and ways of handling these concerns,” the letter states. The group criticizes the bill’s call for mandatory filtering.

Jonathan Wallace, an attorney and co-founder of the Censorware Project – an organization that opposes the use of filtering software in public institutions – says both of the bills present First Amendment problems.

“One basic problem is that no software product can distinguish between obscene and non-obscene material,” Wallace said. “The net effect of these products is the blocking of socially useful information that is not obscene.”

“These filtering products are as imperfect as ever,” he said. “In fact, as the Internet continues to grow exponentially, the products get worse and worse.”

A bill similar to Pennsylvania’s was introduced in West Virginia on March 2 but failed to make it out of committee before the state’s 2000 legislative session ended.

House Bill 4802 would have required both public libraries and public schools to adopt acceptable-use policies for the Internet. The bill provided that public libraries and public schools must take whatever steps they “deem appropriate” in order to enforce their acceptable-use policies.

The bill did not mandate the use of blocking software but said library and school officials may install software designed to block adults from accessing illegal materials or children from accessing material that is harmful to minors.

Filtering bills have also been introduced this year in Utah, Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Wallace says so many filtering bills have been introduced because “the conservative advocates of filtering are making a big push at the grass-roots level.”