High court OKs
library porn filters
Isle libraries say they will follow
the order to retain federal funds
The U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday the government can require public libraries to equip computers with anti-pornography filters, rejecting librarians' complaints that the law amounts to censorship.
More than 14 million people a year use public library computers, including many children, and the court said patrons of all ages were being exposed to unseemly sex sites on the Web.
Justices ruled that the government can withhold money from libraries that do not install blocking devices, even though the technology shuts off more than pornography.
"To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance," the main ruling said.
The 6-3 ruling, although fractured, was the federal government's most significant legal victory in a seven-year effort to shield children from Internet smut.
Hawaii's public library system does not have filters on its Internet work stations. Instead, it allows parents to put an electronic block on their child's library card that prevents access to the Internet unless the child is assisted by a librarian.
"While we are disappointed that the justices did not take locally developed programs that allow parents to disallow their children's access to the Internet in libraries into account, the Hawaii State Public Library System is not prepared to give up our only federal funding sources," state Librarian Virginia Lowell said yesterday.
Hawaii library rules also prohibit the display of pornographic images. Anyone who violates the rule must stop using the computer and may be banned from the library if they fail to comply. In the first year of the program, there were just six reportable violations, three involving adults and three involving juveniles, Lowell said.
She said the library system will wait for further guidance from the Schools and Libraries Corp. and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, its sources of federal funds.
In the high court's decision, four justices said the law did not violate First Amendment free speech, and two others said it was allowable as long as libraries disable the filters for adult patrons who ask. The law does not specifically require the disabling.
"This is electronic book burning," said Seth Finkelstein, a Cambridge, Mass., computer programmer who is a leading expert on Internet filters. "The Supreme Court has ruled the secret censors may prevent you from reading what you want."
Judith Krug, with the American Library Association, predicted that many libraries would consider rejecting federal money rather than installing filters. "A substantial number of libraries will say it's not worth it," she said. "The fact that the librarian can flick a switch isn't going to change the stigma that's attached to it."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, "The Constitution does not guarantee the right to acquire information at a public library without any risk of embarrassment."
Libraries had argued that the technology blocks a vast amount of valuable information about science, medicine and other topics along with dirty pictures. Still, those that buck Congress to avoid that will face a hefty penalty; libraries have received about $1 billion since 1999 in technology subsidies.
Some library systems, such as the Los Angeles city library, already turn down the federal funds. Others, like the Seattle system, receive several hundred thousand dollars a year.
Congress has passed three anti-pornography laws since 1996. The Supreme Court struck down the first one, and the second was blocked by justices from taking effect. The first two laws were criminal statutes involving Web site operators.
The latest approach, in the 2000 law, shifted the focus to libraries dependent on federal money. Under the law, filters are required for all library users, not just children.
The case is United States vs. American Library Association, 02-361.
Star-Bulletin reporter Susan Essoyan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.