Library Porn Filters in Phoenix Stir ACLU Challenge

July 7, 2008 - 7:05 PM

(CNSNews.com) - With Congress and the federal judiciary at a standstill over how best to protect children from Internet pornography at public libraries, the city of Phoenix, Ariz., has jumped out front on the issue. The city's new ban on web smut is also already the target of a challenge by civil libertarians.

The Phoenix City Council recently voted unanimously to immediately block all pornography from the public library's web terminals. The policy, the toughest yet in any major American city, comes in response to last month's arrest of a convicted child molester who admitted he had been downloading child pornography at the library.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said the ban on what he called "filth" has been a long time in coming. "All porn should be filtered out and this policy does that. The convicted child molester was simply the last straw."

Gordon noted that it should not have taken the arrest of a sexual predator to spur the city into action. "I've been working on this since I was a city councilman five years ago and it's fair to ask what took us so long. I assumed, out of ignorance, we were already adequately filtering. With all the media attention, this thing moved, relatively, like light speed."

But the Phoenix chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is preparing to battle the new ban. "We've heard from people who are concerned about this. We have several possible plaintiffs. This will end up in the (U.S.) Supreme Court," said ACLU Executive Director Eleanor Eisenberg.

The case in fact could prove problematic for the city. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June struck down similar protections written into the federal Child Online Protection Act (COPA), passed in 1998 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. In a 5-4 split, the high court sent the measure back to the lower courts, ruling that the law, designed to protect children from viewing unwanted pornographic pictures, was too broad.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy maintained that if COPA took effect, there would be "a potential for extraordinary harm and a serious chill upon protected speech."

Gordon admitted that there may be problems with the city's blanket ban, but said he is confident the new policy will pass constitutional muster.

"The (U.S.) Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed that porn is protected speech under the First Amendment, but it didn't rule that city libraries must provide access to porn," Gordon said. "You don't see pornographic books and magazines on library shelves. We're confident we'll win any court challenge to the new policy. It's the right thing to do and our attorneys agree, so we'll prevail in court."

The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government may require public libraries to filter out pornography. In a 6-2 decision in June of 2003, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that, "Congress has wide latitude to attach conditions to the receipt of federal assistance in order to further its policy objectives." The majority also noted that libraries were already excluding printed pornography from their shelves, so there was no violation of library patrons' First Amendment rights.

Even so, officials with the city's public libraries aren't so sure the ban is a good idea. The Phoenix Library Advisory Board told Gordon not to adopt the policy, and City Librarian Toni Garvey appeared upset by the council's unanimous vote. Later, Garvey issued a statement affirming her commitment to, "follow the direction of the City Council to make
Internet use at the Phoenix Public Library safe and enjoyable for all our families and citizens."

The ACLU is worried that the sweeping nature of the ban might block computer users from obtaining Internet information about breast cancer, sex education, or even AIDS.

But Gordon said that is not the case. "This is not meant to block medical research, but to protect the family atmosphere of the public library. If the filter is too broad, the user can request the librarian to un-filter the website."

Gordon added that he believes the ACLU is worried about the Phoenix case because of the possibility that the city's policy will serve as the model for other communities.

"Glendale's (Arizona) mayor is following our lead. Mesa looks like they are following our lead. Porn industry leaders and the ACLU are fighting us because we are the fifth-largest city in the country," Gordon said.