Supreme Court Hears Arguments in CIPA Case

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The American Library Association's (ALA) and American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) legal challenge of a federal library filtering law continues.

On March 5, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the government's appeal of a lower court's ruling last May that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is unconstitutional. CIPA would require public libraries seeking government subsidies to install filtering software to block materials considered obscene, child pornography, or "harmful to minors."

"The mandatory filtering requirement imposed by CIPA violates the First Amendment because it forces public libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech," said Jenner & Block attorney Theresa Chmara, counsel for ALA. "Filtering software blocks access to a broad array of information related to medical and political speech that is constitutionally protected both for adults and minors. Public libraries across the country have devised less restrictive alternatives that allow parents and librarians to work together to insure that children have a safe and productive learning experience at the public library."

On May 31, 2002, a panel of three judges of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania declared CIPA to be facially invalid. The government filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on June 20, 2002, and submitted their brief to the court on January 10, 2003.

In mid-February, ALA and ACLU filed their response. Soon after, a broad coalition of organizations representing publishers, booksellers, and authors, among others, led by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), filed an amicus brief in support of ALA and ACLU.

At the March 5 hearing, ALA attorney Paul Smith told the justices that filtering software block tens of thousands of constitutionally protected Web sites that include important information, as reported by the Associated Press.

Justice Stephen Breyer countered that an Internet user can ask the librarian to disable the filters to access a particular site, the AP article stated. But Smith noted that doing so stigmatizes a person doing legitimate research. "You've got to go up and say 'Please turn off the porn filter,'" he said.

In its brief submitted to the Supreme Court, the government contends that, when the lower court made its decision in May, it applied the wrong standard of review in its decision, and noted that what librarians make available for patrons is not subject to strict constitutional judgment. [For more on CIPA, click here ].

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is expected by the end of June 2003.

To read the official Supreme Court transcript of the March 5 arguments, click here.