Magazine article American Libraries

Filtering and the First Amendment: When Is It Okay to Block Speech Online?

Magazine article American Libraries

Filtering and the First Amendment: When Is It Okay to Block Speech Online?

Article excerpt

In the decade since the Supreme Court upheld the implementation of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), internet filtering has become a frequent practice in public libraries. It has also become the primary strategy for managing students' internet access in school libraries. Debate over filtering became muted as libraries receiving e-rate funds moved to comply with CIPA's mandates.

While researchers counted the number of libraries and schools using filters, little inquiry was made into how institutions were implementing CIPA or how filtering was affecting library users.

Recent court filings, news reports, and online posts, however, have begun to shine a spotlight on libraries' filtering policies and practices. According to legal complaints, some libraries are denying users access to websites that discuss Wicca and Native American spirituality; blacklisting websites that affirm the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities while white listing sites that advocate against gay rights and promote "ex-gay" ministries; and refusing to unblock web pages that deal with youth tobacco use, art galleries, blogs, and firearms. School librarians, teachers, and even Department of Education officials are openly complaining that the overzealous blocking of online information in schools is impairing the educational process.

Why are we seeing more and more instances where public libraries and schools are actively engaged in censoring online information, despite the library profession's commitment to intellectual freedom, First Amendment rights, and free and open access to information?

Often, it is because the institutions and individuals responsible for implementing these policies misunderstand or misinterpret CIPA and the Supreme Court decision upholding the law. Among these misunderstandings is a belief that an institution will lose all federal funding if it does not block all potentially inappropriate sites to the fullest extent practicable, or that the Supreme Court decision authorized mandatory filtering for adults and youths alike. Another mistaken belief is that it does not violate the First Amendment to impose restrictive filtering policies that deny adults full access to constitutionally protected materials online.

This con fusion over CIPA's requirements and the Supreme Court's opinion can lead to overly restrictive filtering that denies library users their First Amendment right to receive information. Given these circumstances, it is worthwhile to review just what the law does require regarding internet filtering in libraries.

What CIPA requires

CIPA's authority to govern internet filtering policies in public schools and public libraries draws on the power of Congress to attachrequirements to the funds it distributes. Because there is no requirement that a school or library accept federal funds. CIPA applies only to the schools and libraries that choose to accept e-rate discounts or Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants for their in-ternet access.

CIPA's basic requirements are simple: Schools and libraries subject to CIPA must certify that the institution has adopted an internet safety policy that includes use of a "technology protection measure"--filtering or blocking software--to keep adults from accessing images online that are obscene or child pornography. The filtering software must also block minors' access to images that are "harmful to minors." that is, sexually explicit images that adults have a legal right to access but lacking any serious literary, artistic. political, or scientific value for minors.

Institutions subject to CIPA's mandate must place filters on all computers owned by the school or library, including those computers used by staff. A person authorized by the institution may disable the filter or unblock a website for an adult user to enable access for bona fide research or for any other lawful purpose. …

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