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Court strikes down mandate for filters in public libraries

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal appeals court has invalidated a law requiring public libraries to install filters on their computers to combat pornography.

A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously the Children’s Internet Protection Act violated the U.S. Constitution by mandating public libraries that receive government Internet discounts maintain blocking software. The decision, however, did not overturn the law’s application to libraries in public schools.

The May 31 opinion was the latest in a series of defeats Congress has suffered in federal courts in an effort to protect children from online pornography.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was approved in late 2000, required libraries to install technology to screen out obscenity and child pornography on all computers and soft-core porn and other harmful material on those used by children.

The judges, however, said in their opinion it had been demonstrated the leading filters block thousands of pages of constitutionally protected speech.

“We are sympathetic to the position of the government, believing that it would be desirable if there were a means to ensure that public library patrons could share in the informational bonanza of the Internet while being insulated from materials that meet CIPA’s definitions. … Unfortunately this outcome, devoutly to be wished, is not available in this less than best of all possible worlds,” the panel said. “In view of the limitations inherent in the filtering technology mandated by CIPA, any public library that adheres to CIPA’s conditions will necessarily restrict patrons’ access to a substantial amount of protected speech, in violation of the First Amendment.”

Civil libertarians applauded the ruling, but pro-family advocates criticized it.

“Once again, adults in the form of these federal judges have shown that they are more concerned about upholding the privileges and so-called rights of adults than they are in protecting the safety and welfare of our nation’s children,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “When children at public libraries are given unfiltered access to obscene material, it causes life-changing and spirit-stunting damage.

“This is one more example of what an excessively anti-child culture we have become. We seem to have utterly lost the concept that it is the responsibility of all adults to look out for the safety and welfare of children. One must come to the conclusion that either these judges fail to comprehend the damage done by pornography and obscenity to young children’s minds or they simply don’t care,” he said.

“And to parents I can only say, ‘Keep your children out of public libraries unless you or some other trusted adult is there to supervise them. Otherwise, you might as well drop them off at the vilest adult video store in your town with a supply of quarters so they can browse to their heart’s content in the store’s peep-show booths,'” Land said.

Family Research Council President Ken Connor said in a written statement, “It’s regrettable that the courts have hampered the ability of parents to protect children from the plague of online pornography. This case reflects the double standard that exists where the federal courts protect kids from the so-called dangers of ‘religious’ speech but fully expose them to the perils of pornography. When will common sense be injected back into the court system?”

The Department of Justice will determine whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

The ACLU and American Library Association led the challenge of CIPA. Among other parties bringing suit were People for the American Way; Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a leading abortion rights organization; and Planetout.com, a website dealing with homosexual, bisexual and transgendered issues.

A Family Research Council study in 2000 found more than 2,000 reports of patrons, many of them children, accessing obscenity and child pornography in public libraries. That was based on research done in which only 29 percent of libraries complied with Freedom of Information Act requests.

The FRC study also found reports of adults exposing children to online pornography, adults and minors masturbating at computer terminals and attempts by adults at molestation.

The ruling continued a pattern in which federal courts have struck down congressional attempts to protect children from online porn.

The Supreme Court invalidated a 1996 measure, the Communications Decency Act, which barred online computer distribution of obscene and indecent material to children less than 18 years of age.

In April of this year, the high court invalidated portions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, a 1996 federal law that expanded a ban on child porn to include images that appear to be of children under 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

Less than a month later, the justices returned to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals consideration of the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 federal measure that bans commercial websites from making sexually explicit material available to minors.