The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in the federal government's appeal of a Philadelphia court ruling that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is a violation of the First Amendment. The controversial law seeks to regulate inappropriate content and install content filtering technology in public libraries nationwide.
Last May, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia agreed with a lower court ruling that the use of filtering technology blocked portions of protected speech "whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest. Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions will necessarily restrict patrons access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment."
The Philadelphia ruling was a substantial victory for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA), which filed twin lawsuits in March 2001 to have the law tossed out on First Amendment and due-process grounds.
The law, enacted in December 2000 in part to protect minors from access to Internet pornography, requires schools and libraries to use the filtering software to shield minors from adult material but, because it called for adults to get permission to access certain information, it raised the ire of the civil liberties and library groups. The law also blocked federal funding to libraries that did not install the software.
"The statute requires libraries to install blocking programs that inevitably censor a substantial amount of protected speech for adults and minors. Indeed no blocking program offers content categories that are limited -- or even tied in any way -- to CIPA's legal definitions of obscenity, child pornography, or material that is 'harmful to minors'," the ACLU/ALA brief before the Philadelphia court contended.
The ACLU and the ALA said the CIPA-mandated blocking programs were "ineffective" and "overly broad" and noted that libraries around the country have devised a number of less restrictive ways to assist patrons who wish to avoid content they find offensive.
"Under this Court's well-established First Amendment rules, CIPA fails the strict scrutiny required of content-based speech restrictions," the groups argued.
In its 195-page decision, the Philadelphia appeals court noted it was worried that library patrons might be too embarrassed or lose their right to be anonymous because the CIPA law required that they seek permission to have the filtering software removed.
Wednesday's arguments will represent the third time constitutional challenges have been made against laws aimed at curbing Internet pornography. Last May, The Supreme Court recently reversed a U.S. appeals court ruling which found the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA) too broad in scope.
In an 8-1 vote, the justices ruled that the appeals court could not bar enforcement of the law on the basis that it relies on community standards to identify harmful material.
The COPA law was intended to make it a crime to place sexually explicit material on the Internet where minors can view it. The law required commercial Web site operators to use credit cards or other adult access systems to prevent minors from viewing the material. COPA imposed criminal and civil penalties of up to $50,000 per day for violations.
Congress drafted COPA in an effort to create a more narrowly defined law than the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997 as unconstitutional, saying the CDA "place(d) an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech."