ACLU, American Library Association Fight Anti-Porn Law

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act.

The law requires libraries that choose to accept federal subsidies for Internet access to install software that blocks access to web sites featuring pornography. The legislation was originally sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and was signed by President Clinton in December.

The ACLU and ALA allege in their lawsuit that it is a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech to tie federal funds to restrictions on access to Internet sites.

"It blocks access to constitutionally protected speech," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the ALA's Washington office. "It's a violation of the First Amendment. If a library were to accept federal funding [related to Internet access], they must put filters on their Internet access," she explained. "That would mean that the public that depends on the public library for Internet access would have filtered access, which is not complete," said Sheketoff.

The groups object to the law for others reasons, as well. They believe filters are not able to differentiate between pornography web sites and, for example, sites dealing with breast cancer. "It filters out perfectly legitimate, constitutionally protected information, such as health information and political information," said Sheketoff, "and it does not completely protect children from inappropriate information or information that is harmful to minors."

Poor communities would also be hurt by Internet filtering, according to Sheketoff. "This is a federal mandate which is holding the poorest libraries hostage," she said. "It's saying the libraries that need the funding the most, those that are the poorest and serve the poorest, must filter. Therefore, those people who have no access to other information, who depend on the public library are getting less information than those localities that are rich enough to say they don't need the federal funding."

The Children's Internet Protection Act has not gone into effect yet, so libraries have not had the opportunity to turn down the federal funds.

Donna Rice Hughes, who back in the 1980s attracted tabloid fame for an alleged extra-marital affair with then-presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Gary Hart, is today a prominent activist against Internet pornography. She says the objections of the ACLU and the ALA are the result of fundamental philosophical differences about access to pornography.

"During some of the earlier cases [opposing anti-pornography laws], the ACLU and the ALA said, 'we don't need laws to protect children from pornography; just use filters,'" said Rice. "They [now] complain that filters don't work or they're not effective, but the bottom line is they have a different philosophy with respect to children and pornography.

"The ACLU opposes on First Amendment grounds any type of law which would punish the distribution or exposure of obscenity, pornography, indecency harmful to minors," Rice continued. "And they also oppose any laws that would restrict even the production and distribution of child pornography."

Though the ALA claims it is willing to accept Internet filters if they are agreed to at the local level, Rice says neither the ALA nor the ACLU will accept filters under any circumstances.

"When you start to understand the underlying philosophy here, you begin to understand that the issue is not filtering, because there won't ever be any kind of filtering that will be acceptable to the ACLU. They believe it's unconstitutional to keep kids away from pornography," said Rice.

According to Sheketoff, the ACLU/ALA lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.