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Editorials
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Sunday, June 2, 2002



[ OUR OPINION ]

Librarians are best
at monitoring kids


THE ISSUE

A panel of federal judges has struck down a law requiring software blocking offensive material from appearing on library computers.


STATE Librarian Virginia Lowell devised a clever system in November 2000 to achieve technical compliance with an ill-advised federal law aimed at cutting off federal subsidies to public libraries that allow children access to sexual content on the Internet. That law rightly has been overturned by a federal judicial panel in Pennsylvania, but Lowell's system is a good one that should remain in place.

Having enacted two previous Internet censorship laws that were struck down as unconstitutional, Congress in 2000 approved the Children's Internet Protection Act. It required public and school libraries to install software filters on their computers to block "visual depictions" of obscenity, child pornography and sexual matters regarded as "harmful to minors." Libraries failing to comply would lose federal funding.

"Filters don't work," Lowell responded. She instead created a new library service called PACE, for Parents Authorize Cyberspace Entry, allowing parents to delegate to librarians their children's cyberspace journeys. Parents can direct the library staff to place an electronic "block" on their child's library card. No "blocked" child is allowed onto the Internet without a librarian's presence. Lowell took the position -- a stretch, but a shrewd one -- that the "block" conformed to the new law's software requirement.

In a lawsuit brought by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, a special three-judge panel comprised of Judge Edward R. Becker of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and two district judges agreed last week that filters blocking pornographic material also block inoffensive Web sites on medical and social issues, such as breast cancer and homosexuality.

Becker wrote that "the blocking software is (at least for the foreseeable future) incapable of effectively blocking the majority of materials" deemed offensive by the law. Requiring libraries to install such ineffective software, he added, "will necessarily restrict patrons access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment."

People of all ages are forbidden from viewing pornography on public library computers in Hawaii. Adult offenders have been forced to halt their scheduled Internet time or leave the library and not return for six months. The PACE program is an extra safeguard to monitor children's cyberspace activities. The best people to decide what material children should be allowed to see on library computers are librarians, with the authorization of parents.

The government probably will appeal the judicial panel's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the factual findings are solid, the legal principles applied are sound and the ruling is unlikely to be overturned.

Congress would be wise to leave library matters to librarians.



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