Child Net protection act will be put to legal test
(IDG) -- Two broad coalitions of civil liberties groups, library associations, Web sites and individual library patrons are planning to challenge a new federal law that mandates the use of filtering software in schools and libraries receiving federal grants for computers or Internet access. The coalitions plan to file twin lawsuits in a Philadelphia federal court on March 20.
The Children's Internet Protection Act, which Congress passed late last year, requires schools and libraries to install "technology protection measures" to shield minors from adult content. Hailed by conservatives, the law endured stiff opposition from civil liberties and library groups. It passed only after being tacked onto a critical appropriations bill during last year's lame-duck session of the 106th Congress.
Both lawsuits, which will attempt to have the new law struck down on First Amendment and due-process grounds, will be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, according to sources involved in their preparation. One lawsuit, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, will include a wide range of plaintiffs, such as county and state library associations; individual library patrons; and several Web sites whose content involves reproductive choice, safe sex, gay and lesbian issues, and art that is blocked by filtering software. Other library groups and individual patrons will join the other lawsuit, led by the American Library Association. The court is expected to combine the lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is preparing to issue a rule by April 20 that would outline the steps that schools and libraries participating in the federal E-rate program, a $2.25 billion annual subsidy of Internet access, must take under the new law.
Under the CIPA provisions, a three-judge panel comprised of two district judges and one appellate judge will hear the lawsuits. Any appeal of the panel's verdict must be made to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The law's supporters say a mandate is needed to combat an epidemic of minors accessing adult content on computers at schools and libraries. Opponents counter that filtering software is a clumsy, subjective tool that all too often blocks harmless Web sites. Furthermore, opponents say, a government-imposed mandate is a poor substitute for parental supervision, private use of filters and public education efforts.
The upcoming legal challenge will be merely the latest in a string of courtroom battles regarding decency laws in the digital age. The ACLU has until April 16 to reply to a recent Justice Department petition asking the Supreme Court to overturn a June 2000 appeals court decision that declared unconstitutional the Child Online Privacy Act, a 1998 Internet decency law. In June 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that a 1996 law, the Communications Decency Act, was unconstitutional. Both of those earlier cases also originated in the Philadelphia federal court.
In January, the Supreme Court said it would hear a case regarding the 1996 Child Pornography Protection Act. In that case, the Justice Department is appealing a December 1999 decision by a 9th Circuit federal appeals panel, which held that criminalizing computerized images of child pornography that don't involve real children is unconstitutional.
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