Guns And Porn Top Court Agenda

supreme court graphic scotus AP

The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will decide if public libraries can be forced to install software that blocks sexually explicit Web sites, the latest in Congress' string of attempts to shield children from Internet pornography.

Congress has struggled to find ways to protect children from online smut without infringing on free speech.

Diving into the gun debate, the court also agreed to decide if gun records, like those pertaining to the Washington-area sniper case, should be kept secret.

The latest fight over pornography involves a measure, signed by President Clinton in 2000, which requires public libraries receiving federal technology funds to install the filters on their computers or risk losing aid.

It was the third law passed since 1996. The Supreme Court struck down the first and blocked the second from taking effect.

A federal three-judge panel ruled that the Children's Internet Protection Act violates the First Amendment because the mandated filtering programs also block sites on politics, health, science and other non-pornography.

"Given the crudeness of filtering technology, any technology protection measure mandated by CIPA will necessarily block access to a substantial amount of speech whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest," the judges wrote earlier this year.

The Bush administration argued that libraries are not required to have X-rated movies and pornographic magazines and shouldn't have to offer access to porn on library computers.

The judges had recommended less restrictive ways to control Internet use, like requiring parental consent before a minor is allowed to use an unfiltered computer or requiring a parent to be present while a child surfs the Net.

"The main point of contention will be whether the law goes too far in blocking perfectly legitimate Web sites, as well as those children shouldn't see," says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen.

"The law requires libraries to use Internet filtering devices or risk losing their federal funding, but the libraries say that current technology does not allow them to filter out porn sites while allowing library users still to go to non-pornographic sites. So this may be a case that has as much to do with technology as it does with the law."

Cohen says that while the expectation would be "that this conservative Supreme Court would simply rubber-stamp the law," that's not necessarily the case. "This is a court, especially when it comes to first amendment free speech and expression cases, that often defies expectations and predictions. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if the high court affirms what the lower court did in this case – and that's toss out the law even though it was earnestly enacted.

The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law.

Paul M. Smith, the attorney for the library association, said more than 14 million people use libraries for Internet access. The latest restriction "takes a meat ax approach to an area that requires far more sensitive tools," he argued.

Smith said that with filtering software, librarians would have no involvement in blocking decisions.

Texas had asked the Supreme Court to uphold the law.

"Parents should not be afraid to send their children to the library, either because they might be exposed to such materials or because the library's free, filterless computers might attract people with a propensity to victimize children," wrote Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last week.

Congress knew that the latest law would be challenged, and directed any appeals to go straight to the Supreme Court after a trial before a three-judge panel.

At issue in the gun case is whether the government can keep secret information on some gun purchases and crimes, including details of database checks like those used to track weapons in the sniper case.

The Bush administration, backed by the National Rifle Association and a police group, claims that confidential records are needed to safeguard investigations and protect people's privacy.

Critics say the administration's policy keeps the public in the dark about gun violence and how well crime-fighters are doing.

"This is more an issue of privacy versus public access than it is about the right to bear arms. But the government has come down on the side of privacy and it's a position that favors gun manufacturers, dealers and buyers and disfavors cities and other parties that want access to the information for a number of reasons," says Cohen.

"The larger debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – won't be resolved by this case, but the administration is coming down clearly on the side of gun-rights advocates here and that has to worry gun-control advocates who see the case as a potential stepping-stone toward broader gun rights."

In other decisions:

  • The court refused to consider whether workers can be forced to pay for union organizing activities in other workplaces against their wishes.

    The issue has put the Bush administration at odds with the business community. The administration defended the mandatory dues and pressed the court to stay out of a fight that involved grocery workers but could also affect millions of other employees.

    Workers in 28 states can be forced to pay some dues, whether or not they join the union, under agreements negotiated with companies. The other 22 states have restrictions under right-to-work laws.

  • The court refused to review police methods in getting a teenage girl to confess to having sex with an older man who got her pregnant during a yearlong road trip.

    The man wanted the court to consider if the girl's statement was coerced and therefore could not have been used at his trial.

  • The court refused to get involved in a state campaign finance case, turning down a request by Mississippi and 20 other states that wanted to clarify what campaign speech is so they could more closely regulate it.

    The Supreme Court is expected to get drawn into a much bigger campaign finance case next year involving challenges to the new federal law.
    • Joel Roberts

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