Smut At The Library

hands on computer keyboard
AP
A new front in a war between free-speech advocates and Congress over pornography on the Internet opens on Monday with a courtroom battle over how far the government can go to make libraries equip computers with software that blocks pornographic Web sites.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, the U.S. government's third attempt to control online smut, seeks to prevent children from accessing objectionable Internet material by requiring libraries to put blocking software on computers or lose federal funds that subsidize Internet access.

"The question here - and it's likely one that will have to be decided ultimately by the U.S. Supreme Court - is whether the first amendment permits the government to withhold subsidies to libraries that don't block access to pornographic sites," says b>CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "To the extent this law is not as broad as its predecessors, and to the extent it focuses on government funding and not on direct limitations of school and libraries, it has a better chance of being upheld."

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Washington-based group People for the American Way and a coalition of libraries, library patrons and Web site operators fear the law would undermine the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment.

Some view the law as an attempt by social conservatives in Congress to use the pornography issue as an excuse for denying public access to Web sites operated by their ideological opponents, including gay and abortion rights advocates.

"Ultimately, the government is trying to dictate what adults can access on the Internet," said ACLU attorney Ann Beeson.

The coalition filed a free-speech legal challenge to CIPA last year in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution. On Monday, the case goes to trial before a special three-judge panel in U.S. District Court, with the Federal Communications Commission and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences as defendants.

If the challenge succeeds, the court will impose a permanent injunction preventing the law from taking effect. Both sides say the case will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is slated to hear any appeal in the case.

"Our perspective is that for all of us to govern ourselves effectively, we need access to information and it's not up to the government to say what that information is," said Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, which represents about 3,000 libraries.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, which then-President Bill Clinton signed into law in 2000, is seen by its supporters as the government's best shot yet at controlling Internet smut in a country where free-speech rights are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Justice Department, which will argue on behalf of the government at this week's trial, has agreed not to require library compliance under the Library Service and Technology Act or LSTA until July 31.

"I'm optimistic that the CIPA law will be upheld as constitutional because when drafting the legislation, we paid close attention to legal precedent and established definitions of obscenity to make sure the law could stand up to court challenges," said U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, a Mississippi Republican.

The first attempt by Congress to control online smut, the 1996 Communications Decency Act, was thrown out by the Supreme Court as an infringement of free speech. A second bid, the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, remains sidelined by an injunction, with the U.S. high court due to issue a final opinion by midyear. Both would impose criminal penalties on violators.

Since 1999, the government has provided more than $880 million to public libraries under LSTA, according to the American Library Association, which says the loss of that support could cause small public libraries to shut off Internet service altogether, eliminating Web access to poor people for whom the library is the only Internet portal.

Supporters of the law say it is necessary because civil society is confronted by a rapacious pornography industry intent on luring youngsters to its Web sites.

"It's not just Playboy soft-porn nudity. A lot of it's torture. A lot of it's bestiality. And a lot of it is teen hard-core sex," said Donna Rice Hughes, an Internet safety advocate who works as a consultant for a company that markets blocking software.

Rice Hughes, who campaigns against online pornography, briefly became a household word in the late 1980s as a central figure in the sex scandal that ended former Colorado Democratic Sen. Gary Hart's presidential hopes.