By: Joann Loviglio, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Librarians complained that the government was trying to turn them into “thought police” as a trial over the constitutionality of a federal law requiring libraries to screen out Internet pornography opened.
The trial, which is being heard by a three-judge panel, began Monday and was expected to last nine days.
Leading the challenge to the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000 are the American Library Association and the Multnomah County, Ore., Public Library. They contend that the law puts unconstitutional restraints on free speech.
They want to offer patrons a choice between filtered and unfiltered Internet access, contending that parents and children should be the ones who determine what content they find unacceptable — not the government.
“There are some 5-year-olds whose parents do not want them to know where babies come from and there are some that do,” testified Ginnie Cooper, director of the Multnomah County library, which serves 500,000 people. “We don’t try to presume the values of parents.”
The law requires that libraries receiving certain types of federal technology funding use filters to block access to objectionable Web sites. Opponents say the software can also block access to sites providing valuable information on topics such as breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases while failing to block pornographic sites.
“Librarians are uniquely qualified to teach library patrons how to find the content they want and avoid inappropriate content without the government trying to deputize them into the thought police,” said Ann Beeson for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is arguing the case for the plaintiffs.
Sally Garner Reed, former director of the Norfolk Public Library in Virginia, said libraries are reflective of their communities and could be stifled by a one-size-fits-all approach.
The government argues that filtering software has vastly improved since the law was enacted, making fewer mistakes and allowing libraries to unblock sites that were blocked in error. The government also contends that printed pornographic materials are not in many library collections, so there is no reason why online obscenity should be.
“Your policy is just plug in the (Internet) service and essentially tell patrons, ‘Don’t break the law,’ is that correct?” asked Timothy Zick, a Justice Department attorney.
“Yes,” replied Candace Morgan, a librarian for 37 years currently at the Fort Vancouver, Wash., Regional Library.
Libraries that do not comply by July 2002 would lose federal technology funding. It was unclear when the judges may rule, but any appeal would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
American Library Association data on the law: http://www.ala.org/cipa
Family Research Council’s view: http://www.frc.org/porn.cfm