Free-speech, privacy advocates band together to fight new Internet filtering law

Friday, January 26, 2001

A coalition of free-speech and privacy organizations this week
launched a national campaign designed to warn the public about the inadequacies
of a new federal filtering law and to pave the way for a legal challenge
against the law on First Amendment grounds.

Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, People
for the American Way and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, contend that the
Children’s Internet Protection Act stifles free speech by requiring schools and
libraries to use blocking technology on computers with Internet access.

“I think the average person on the street doesn’t understand the
serious problem with blocking technology,” said Will Doherty, executive
director of the Online Policy Group. “As long as that is the case, legislators
will continue to propose measure after measure until they hit upon something
that passes judicial muster.”

Doherty says the
coalition plans
to provide educational materials for parents, teachers and librarians to help
them understand the inadequacies of blocking technology and their First
Amendment rights to access information on the Internet. At the same time, the
groups plan to continue legal challenges in the courts and lobbying before

These efforts come a month after Congress passed the Children’s
Internet Protection Act, which was unexpectedly attached to a $450 billion
federal spending bill approved on Dec. 15. President Clinton signed the bill
into law on Dec. 21.

The law requires those schools and libraries receiving federal
universal service assistance, often called e-rate, to use Internet filtering
programs to prevent minors from viewing “inappropriate” online material. If
they don’t, they will lose those federal dollars.

Last week, the American Library Association pledged to file a lawsuit
challenging the requirement. But the group has yet to work out the details of
such a lawsuit, including when or where to file the suit.

In the past, groups like the ALA and the ACLU have successfully
challenged similar legislation on First Amendment grounds. In 1997, the U.S.
Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU declared the Communications
Decency Act unconstitutional for regulating Web content deemed harmful to

Opponents to the new law say the filtering programs are faulty because
they block more Web sites than they should while letting some pornography sites

Over the years, anti-filtering groups have shown top filtering
programs to block out sites belonging to the human rights group Amnesty
International, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and a digitized copy
of the novel “Jane Eyre.”

Although lawmakers admit the filters are imperfect, they say any
protection is better than nothing at all.

“As parents, elected officials, teachers and members of the community,
it is our responsibility to provide a safe and responsible learning environment
in our schools and libraries,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. “It is especially
important that communities have the flexibility to tailor their Internet use
policies to suit the needs and resources of the local community.”

But Doherty says the law doesn’t allow flexibility, instead forcing
communities to accept the limitations of the blocking technology.

“None of these programs have a way to block according to local
community standards,” Doherty said in a telephone interview. “Basically, when
these schools and libraries use blocking technology, they put the control into
the hands of employees of companies who develop these technologies.

The ACLU noted that people who can’t afford to have computers at home
are among the biggest users of computers at libraries and schools.

“The blocking software law has a discriminatory effect on communities
of color, whose use of library computers to access the Internet is central to
bridging the ‘digital divide,’ ” said Ann Beeson, an ACLU staff attorney, in a

David Greene of the First Amendment Project says the law essentially
prevents schools and libraries from offering students and patrons their full

“When we interfere with their ability to make decisions on their own
about the material they want to offer, we, in a large part, are defeating the
purpose of the program,” Green said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to
level the playing field. Instead, what we’re doing now is creating a bias.”