Federal Court Strikes Down Internet Filter Law
Law Likely to have Filtered Sexuality and Gender Identity Information
[PHILADELPHIA, PA] - The American Civil Liberties Union won a significant victory on Friday in its war on Internet censorship, as a three-judge U.S. District Court panel scrapped the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
Passed in December 2000, and not to be confused with the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a different law, CIPA would have forced public libraries to make the choice between accepting federal funds or using software to block sexually-explicit materials on their computer systems.
Under its terms, libraries were expected to be compliant by July 1.
Gay.com and PlanetOut.com are among the clients represented by the ACLU, by virtue of the fact that the sites fall victim to some, but not all, filtering software products. So do tens of thousands of other hosts, says the ACLU, including "the-strippers.com" (a wood stripping company), "redhotmama.com" (an event planner), "muchlove.org" (an animal rescue group), and"cancerftr.wkmc.com" (the oncology center of a hospital).
Rudimentary software, say the civil libertarians, compounds the inherent First Amendment violations in the law, which was passed against the recommendation of a congressional task force, the ACLU notes. CIPA also has a disproportionate impact on less advantaged families, who rely on the library rather than a home computer. Finally, the ACLU and the American Library Association argue that librarians have other ways of keeping kids from seeing pornography on the branch computer.
After a nine-day trial in April, the Philadelphia-based federal court issued a 195-page opinion, striking the law on free speech grounds.
"Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions," wrote the panel, "will necessarily restrict patrons' access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment." The panel called the current filtering technology "a blunt instrument," saying the problems in the industry were "legion."
Under CIPA's terms, the opinion will be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites), which is required to hear the case, the ACLU said.
The justices have already considered two Internet censorship cases, both brought by the ACLU. In 1997, the high court struck the (1996) Communications Decency Act as overbroad, and earlier this month, the justices sent a challenge to the (1998) Child Online Protection Act back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit for more extensive constitutional review.
COPA, which requires Web publishers to shield minors from harmful commercial content, remains unenforceable while the judicial process continues.
Before sending COPA back down, however, the Supreme Court ruled that Web content could constitutionally be subjected to "community standards," even though publishers have no means of limiting their sites to any particular community.
The 3rd Circuit had been so convinced that "community standards" could not be imposed on a boundary-less Web publisher that the panel did not resolve any of the other constitutional questions posed by law.