Senate committee hears arguments on Internet filtering bill

Friday, March 5, 1999

The Senate Commerce Committee heard conflicting testimony from several witnesses yesterday about the constitutionality of a bill that would require all U.S. public schools and public libraries to install Internet blocking software on computer terminals in order to receive federal funds for Internet hook-ups.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act, introduced by Sen. John McCain and Ernest Hollings on Jan. 19, would require public schools to install blocking software on all computers with Internet access. It would mandate that public libraries install such software on at least one computer. If the library had only one computer terminal with Internet access, it would have to filter that access or employ a “reasonably effective alternative means to keep minors from accessing material on the Internet that is deemed harmful to minors.”

At the opening of yesterday’s hearing, McCain said: “Parents have the right to feel safe that, when they send their child to school, when they drop their child off at the public library, somebody is going to be looking out for their children, protecting them. That’s what this bill is all about.”

In his written testimony, Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families, described the bill as an “effective, constitutionally valid measure to further the government’s surpassing importance of protecting children and assisting parents in both the protection and the education of all our children.”

Taylor cited a recent study by Filtering Facts founder David Burt, “Dangerous Access: The Epidemic of Pornography in America’s Public Libraries and the Threat to Children,” detailing hundreds of incidents of patrons — many of whom were minors — accessing pornography in public libraries.

However, other witnesses testified that the bill violated both First Amendment free-speech rights and infringed on the ability of local communities to craft their own solutions to the Internet pornography problem.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, testified that “it is entirely inappropriate for the federal government to use the power of its purse strings to force local schools to accept an onerous censorship policy.”

“Mandatory Internet filtering in public libraries and schools, particularly if mandated by the federal government as a condition on E-rate access, raises serious legal and constitutional problems and threatens to frustrate the tremendous potential of the Internet,” Mincberg said.

Candace Morgan, associate director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Washington state, testified that the bill, while well-intentioned, would get in the way of local communities which are trying to craft their own solutions.

“It denies local communities the opportunity to determine what approach will best serve children in these communities dealing with challenging content,” Morgan said in her written testimony. “It is not just that one solution doesn’t fit all communities. It is also that a federal mandate on a matter so closely tied to local norms and values is, in my view, counterproductive and even harmful.”

No vote was taken yesterday and the Commerce Committee has scheduled no further hearings on the bill.