Federal Court Rules Against Web Filtering Law

Children’s Internet Protection Act Would Block All Kinds of Free Speech at Libraries, Judges Rule

PFAWF President Ralph G. Neas called the court’s ruling "a powerful affirmation of the First Amendment in cyberspace."

CIPA, passed by Congress in 2000, would have required public libraries to install computers with filtering software to block access to material in cyberspace deemed to be "harmful to minors." If libraries failed to outfit their computers with the software, they stood to lose federal funding.

The three-judge court, sitting in Philadelphia, unanimously ruled that CIPA would have blocked all library patrons from gaining access via the Internet to an array of material that is protected by the First Amendment. The court also enjoined federal agencies from withholding funds from public libraries that have not installed the software on their computers.

The ACLU also challenged CIPA, and its suit was consolidated with the PFAWF-ALA suit for trial before the three-judge panel. Any appeal of the panel’s decision will go straight to the Supreme Court.

"The one-size-fits-all filtering software the federal government attempted to foist upon public libraries would have essentially shut down a major function of libraries, which is to educate and inform patrons," Neas said.

In striking down CIPA, the federal court wrote, "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."

PFAWF has acknowledged the legitimate concerns that parents have regarding the amount of inappropriate material that is readily available to children in cyberspace. But as the court recognized in its ruling today, libraries have and are already using less restrictive ways to keep children from accessing illegal material on the Internet. Those means include offering filters for families to use for their own children, providing education and Internet training courses and placing computers for children away from computers for adult use.

"There’s a right way and a wrong way to help parents control their children’s Internet access," Neas added. "We can protect our children and our Constitution."

For many years, PFAWF has worked with other civil liberties groups to challenge federal and state attempts to improperly regulate the Internet. PFAWF also represented library patrons in a case in which a federal district court invalidated a Virginia mandatory filtering policy. In addition, PFAWF and other free speech advocacy groups successfully challenged Congress’ first attempt to muzzle speech on the Internet – called the Communications Decency Act. In another recent federal case, PFAWF and the law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding are challenging a Virginia law criminalizing certain Internet content. A federal judge has issued a permanent injunction blocking the law from taking effect and the case is pending in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

To read more about People For the American Way Foundation’s advocacy of free speech principles, see http://www.pfaw.org/issues/constitutional_freedoms/.

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