TOPICS > Politics

Libraries and the Internet

June 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, today’s other major Supreme Court decision: Upholding the use of filters to block Internet pornography on computers in public libraries. And once again to Jan Crawford Greenburg. Jan, first, the facts of this case.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This case involved a challenge to the children’s Internet protection act. That’s a law congress passed in 2000 to protect children from harmful material that they may access on the Internet, at libraries. It required libraries to install filters on their computers that patrons use. If they don’t install these filters, then the libraries would lose federal money.

JIM LEHRER: And the argument for the filters– and the people who argued that case before the Supreme Court in a nutshell– to protect children.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. The Bush administration also, President Clinton actually had signed this bill into law, and the Bush administration stepped in and said this was an important law because we need to protect children from obscene material, pornography and other things they could easily access on the Internet. Now, on the other side…

JIM LEHRER: The library association and folks like that.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: A group of libraries, patrons, some Web site operators have said, “wait a minute. This is all well and good that we want to protect children, but this also infringes on the first amendment free speech rights of adults,” because these filters are extremely imprecise. They block much, much more information than even should be blocked. In fact, the argument the lawyer representing these organizations said, tens of thousands of sites are improperly being blocked. So their point was adults who are going into the libraries to do research or whatever are not accessing material that under the First Amendment they have a right to see.

JIM LEHRER: The majority didn’t go with them. The majority went the law 6-3. In other words, the vote was 6- 3.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. Actually, this is kind of a tricky case because there wasn’t a majority. It was a plurality opinion written by the chief, but he could only get three justices to join him to say that this law presented no problems under the First Amendment. So the chief’s opinion got the votes of three justices, not enough, obviously, one more he needed. And then Justice Kennedy and Justice Breyer who wanted to uphold this law wrote separate opinions.

They said… so their opinions actually will in a way be the most important, because they’re going to limit what the plurality says. In those opinions, Kennedy and Breyer said, “we think this law should be upheld because the libraries can simply turn these filters off.” It’s not so burdensome on adults before they go to the libraries to go up to the front desk and say, “I’m an adult. I’m doing research or I just want to use the computer. Turn the filter off.”

Kennedy and Breyer stressed that essentially that the law would require that and that the adults didn’t have to explain why they wanted the filter off so they wouldn’t be embarrassed or be doing anything that they wouldn’t want the front desk person to know about. If, in fact, the libraries refused to do that, then an adult patron could come back and say, “I have a constitutional right to this material,” and raise a new legal claim.

JIM LEHRER: So in other words, this isn’t finally resolved?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It is, essentially. Because what this means is libraries now are going to have to go out and install this filtering software on their computers in order to get the federal money. This law has never taken effect. It’s been blocked by a special three-judge court, and many libraries have never gone through the hoops to install these filters.

JIM LEHRER: There could be fights over how they… how they use…

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: But it’s how it’s applied on case-by-case basis. That’s how the law could be challenged. That’s where this law is still susceptible. But of course the libraries and some of the adult patrons had not wanted that to be an issue at all.

JIM LEHRER: But the bottom line today is, like it or not, libraries have to put these filters on.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: If they want the federal money, that’s right. And the adults, as Justice Kennedy and Justice Breyer suggested in their separate opinions, won’t be burdened because they can just ask for these filters to be turned off. The interesting thing is that’s not really in the law, but Justices Kennedy and Breyer suggested it was. So it is.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll see what happens next on that one. Thank you very much, Jan.