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Supreme Court Decision: Internet Ruling Damages Rights of Library Users

Press Release
Nathan Richter or Tracy Duckett
PFAW Foundation
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Court Upholds Internet Blocking Software Requirement, But Allows Patrons to Opt Out

The Supreme Court ruled today that a federal law linking library funding to the installation and use of internet filtering software was constitutional. The Court found that the ability of adult internet users to request the removal of all filters for that user’s internet session offered enough free speech protection to permit the law to stand.

“This ruling narrows the protection of free speech on the internet and in America’s libraries,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way Foundation, which served as co-counsel in the suit. “Filtering technology is an important tool available to parents and families, but it is not a tool intended to be used by the government to mandate decisions about what is available in a public library. This ruling could present a troubling retreat on First Amendment protections in cyberspace.”

The law in question, known as CIPA, was passed in 2000. Previous attempts by Congress to limit internet speech have been struck down by the Court on First Amendment grounds or sent to lower courts for further consideration.

“Unfortunately, even an adult interested in finding public health information or a cancer victim researching her disease would still have to take the embarrassing and often time-consuming step of asking permission under the terms of this decision,” Neas said. “That’s because it is impossible for software to completely and effectively distinguish between legal and illegal content. It’s disturbing that the Court failed to recognize how offensive this law is to the notion of a library as an open place of free inquiry.”

“CIPA asked libraries, internet users and library patrons to cede responsibility for deciding what is available in the library to the government and the private corporations that manufacture filtering software. That is a dangerous step,” Neas said.

The decision by the Court addressed a lawsuit filed by PFAW Foundation and the law firm of Jenner and Block, on behalf of the American Library Association, other library associations and library patrons. Another lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, was combined with this action.