1. Murphy, Sharon C. MLS, RN

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Why did the American Library Association (ALA) sue the government 2 years ago by challenging the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000? ALA believes that mandatory filtering technology blocks access to constitutionally protected speech and violates the Library Bill of Rights. I agree. Internet filtering software blocks legitimate material that library users may find useful and essential in many facets of their lives. At the same time, filters are unable to totally block material they were designed to detect. When it comes to providing Internet access to minors, filtering software gives a false sense of security to educators, librarians, and parents.


Perhaps some history on the legalistic maneuvering that got us to this point may be useful. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Internet is entitled to the highest degree of free speech protection, and struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA) enacted a year earlier to control online content. CDA supporters regrouped and in December 2000, CIPA was passed. Under CIPA, schools and libraries must block inappropriate Internet content through the use of filtering software or risk losing federal funds. The ALA and others challenged the constitutionality of CIPA, but lost in June 2003 when the Supreme Court upheld the law. The Court ruled that the First Amendment does not prohibit Congress from forcing public libraries, as a condition of receiving federal funding, to use software filters to control online content on library computers. Key to the Court's ruling was the ready disabling of filters upon request for adult library users.


Filtering software restricts free access to information. Young learners need guidance to become critical users of the Internet, to assess as well as access material. Filters are not a substitute for this guidance. Nor are they effective in preventing malevolent contact from e-mail or chat rooms. Even when in place, filters can be circumvented. Tutorials exist on the Internet right now that detail how to bypass filtering methods. Rather than restricting Internet access, we should focus instead on educating our children to be "street smart" in the Internet universe. Consider this comment made by a Federal judge when the Child Online Protection Act (CO-PA) was challenged in 1999: "perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will inherit fully with age, are chipped away in the name of their protection" (ACLU v. Reno, 1999).


Filters are imprecise and inherently flawed. Some instances of blocked information include a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site on sexually transmitted diseases, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) site on birth control failure rates, and a Princeton University site on emergency contraception (Dreazen, 2002). This matters when the 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation Survey, Generation How Young People Use the Internet for Health Information, found that 44% of those between the ages of 15 and 17 used the Internet to specifically research pregnancy, birth control, or STD information. Seventy percent of this same age group used the Internet to look up other health information. In this wired generation, we discourage research on health issues by those who need it most when we place filtering software on public computers in libraries.


Restricting Internet access also works to widen the digital divide, because children, less affluent communities, and minorities are disproportionately affected (NTIA, 2000). Public libraries are the primary point of access for people lacking Internet access at home, school, or work. When Internet access is restricted in libraries, who then is most affected?


Libraries are committed to providing the fullest possible access by everyone in the community, including children and teenagers, to all constitutionally protected forms of expression. We should not filter the freedom of speech and the freedom of information access. The Internet should remain a democratic medium for everyone.




ACLU v. Reno, 31 F. Supp. 2d 473, 498 (E.D. Pa 1999), aff'd 217 F3d 162 (3rd Cir. 2000), vacated & remanded by Ashcroft v. ACLU, 532 U.S. 1037 (2001), on remand to ACLU v. Ashcroft, 322 F3d 240 (3rd Cir. 2003), cert. granted, Ashcroft v. ACLU, 24 S. Ct. 399 (2003). [Context Link]


Dreazen, Y. J. (2002). Web filters block safe-sex sites: Antipornography measures seen keeping information away from many teenagers. Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), p. D3. [Context Link]


National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (2000, October). Americans in the information age: Falling through the Net. Retrieved June 8, 2004, from [Context Link]