New Ariz. law filters out First Amendment freedoms

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A new state law in Arizona threatens to withhold 10% of funding from public schools and libraries if they don’t block “harmful” content on the Internet. The law, which goes into effect Aug. 1, requires that minors be blocked from accessing “visual depictions that are child pornography, harmful to minors or obscene.”

According to The Arizona Republic, Rep. Steve Court, who sponsored the bill, says it’s intended to refine existing law.

“It just makes it a little more clear and a little more stringent,” Court told the newspaper.

Not exactly more clear. Like other efforts at legislating Internet access, this statute is muddled and shows no understanding of the difference between obscenity, which is not protected by the First Amendment, and adult-oriented material, which is.

No one wants to see children stumble across sexually explicit content on the Internet, and our schools and public libraries have a duty to protect them. On the other hand, a filter that blocks content that could be “harmful to minors” will inevitably bar content that is perfectly fine for adults — and the blocking is largely done by third-party software vendors and not librarians.

The Arizona law provides that adults who want access to filtered material can ask that the filter be lifted only “for research purposes.” Let’s play that out. A website offering practical advice on family planning might be considered potentially harmful to a nine-year-old and could be blocked. But should a citizen really have to go to a public library and assert that he or she is researching the human reproductive system to access the site?

Sexually oriented content is protected under the Constitution. Obscenity — legally defined as sexual content that has no serious artistic, literary, scientific or political value and that violates contemporary community standards — is not protected under the First Amendment, but it’s a very narrow category. The state has every right to ban obscenity and child pornography. But the overwhelming majority of adult-themed content is not legally obscene.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law requiring libraries to filter content for children or run the risk of losing federal funds. But justices noted that one reason they were comfortable with the filtering was that it could easily be disabled at an adult patron’s request.

Rather than take a cue from the highest court in the land, Arizona is taking constitutionally protected information and forcing adults to certify they’re doing research in order to read it on taxpayer-funded terminals. The Arizona law is well-intended, but it filters out First Amendment guarantees.

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