Legislator to revise bill that would have required Net filtering at universities

Wednesday, February 3, 1999

A Montana legislator says he will drop public universities from a bill that would require public elementary and secondary schools to filter computer terminals with Internet access to protect children from material that “is obscene or obscene to minors.”

Rep. Allan Walters announced at the beginning of an education committee meeting earlier this week that his revised bill would delete the section which mandates filtering at public universities.

The measure, which Walters introduced on Jan. 25, provides that the Legislature cannot appropriate funds to any “university system unit or community college” unless the school ensures that each computer which has Internet access “filters or blocks access by persons under 18 years of age to material that is illegal under state or federal law.”

Under the original measure, universities would have to certify that they supervise minors' Internet access.

The bill would impose virtually identical requirements on public elementary and secondary school districts.

Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, says the original bill contains serious constitutional flaws. “The bill fails to distinguish between juveniles who are age 6 and those who are 17,” he said.

Crichton predicts Walters' bill, if not substantially revised, will not pass out of the Legislature. “There is broad opposition to this bill,” he said. “This is one issue where the ACLU is not alone; because the bill is bad educational policy, numerous educational groups have spoken out against it.”

David Burt of Filtering Facts supports the legislation but hopes it will be amended to include libraries. However, Burt expressed some reservations about requiring filtering at universities. “I'm not sure filtering is necessary for post-secondary schools since I'm not aware that these institutions have a problem with minors accessing the Internet,” he said.

Free-speech advocates warn that filtering at universities would pose a greater threat to the First Amendment than even filters in elementary and secondary schools. “If filtering on the Internet is a bad idea in elementary schools — and it is — then it is a terrible idea at the university level,” said Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman.

“Literally hundreds of laws will be introduced across the nation along these lines in the next few weeks,” McMasters said. “It is a waste of time, a waste of public institutions' resources and an affront to our free-speech traditions.

“Parents and students are free to use filters on home computers, but for a vocal minority to pressure lawmakers into requiring censored speech for everyone is definitely not the American way,” he said.

Larry Ottinger, staff attorney at People for the American Way, agreed, saying that the original bill is both “unusual and problematic.”

“Filters cannot distinguish between legal and illegal materials,” Ottinger said. “Filters block a substantial amount of constitutionally protected material.”

Walters said at the hearing that a revised bill would be introduced within the next few weeks.