The court, in a 6-3 ruling, found that although the filters do restrict some information library patrons might want for legitimate educational purposes, they do not violate the First Amendment. The court said a provision that allows library patrons to ask that the filtering system be turned off means that the law is not an extreme hindrance to research.
The federal law in question, known as Children’s Internet Protection Act, said that if libraries refused to use the filtering technology they could be denied federal funding such as “technologies subsidies, including tax money and telecommunications industry fees,” the Associated Press reported.
The librarians and civil liberties groups that challenged the law after its passage in 2000 argued that the filters amounted to censorship and violated the First Amendment.
“We challenged this law because filters are very blunt instruments that block more than illegal speech, including a great deal of speech that is not even sexual in nature at all,” Paul Smith, the Washington attorney who represented the American Library Association, told the AP. “We’re disappointed that the court said that this one-size-fits-all answer is not the way to handle this problem of sexual content on the Internet in the library setting.”
The court narrowly agreed with the government attorneys who argued that libraries do not keep pornographic material on their shelves and should therefore not provide it through the Internet.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said the law does not turn librarians into censors, the AP reported.
A panel of three federal judges in Pennsylvania ruled in 2002 that the Internet filters in libraries were unconstitutional and blocked too much legitimate information.
In a separate ruling, the court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a California law aimed at helping Holocaust victims with claims against European insurance companies.
The law said insurance companies now doing business in the state that sold policies between 1920 and 1945 must search their records information on such policies and turn the information over to a public registry.
Some Holocaust survivors have said they have legitimate insurance claims from the period that were never paid by insurers. Lawyers for the state of California argued that insurance companies deliberately withheld information so they would not have to pay the claims.
The insurance companies have said that some of the records from the period are unavailable and that, in some cases, European laws restrict the release of policy information to a third party.
The Bush administration has said that such conflicts should be settled through an international commission already in place and that California had no authority to interfere in foreign policy issues.
The court agreed with the federal government, ruling the state law unconstitutional.