The following is an excerpt from an editorial featured on Gay.com/PlanetOut.com. Any opinions either stated or suggested are not necessarily those of GLSEN or its members.
By Ari Bendersky
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether having mandatory Web filtering at public libraries violates First Amendment rights, including the ability to search for non-pornographic information relating to homosexuality.
The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which Congress passed in 2000 and enacted in 2001, says that libraries wanting federal funding must comply and place restrictions on their Internet access. The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully challenged the law last year in a U.S. district court before the case was appealed to the high court.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday and will likely deliver its answer by June. Justice Department lawyers, who are defending the law, argued since librarians have control over what books they purchase to display on their shelves, they should also be able to filter content from
the Internet they deem inappropriate. In other words, if a library chooses
not to have pornography on its shelves, they argue, why then should patrons have access to it on library computers?
The plaintiffs' lawyers in the case countered that thought by saying: "The
blocking of Internet sites mandated by (the law) is akin to a library's purchasing an encyclopedia or a magazine and tearing out or redacting some of its content."
According to the law, Internet filtering software is supposed to block or filter Web sites with visual depictions that are obscene, feature child pornography or can be deemed "harmful to minors."
However, while filters restrict children from finding obscene Web sites,
they also prevent people from researching important information. A December 2002 study by the University of Michigan and the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the filters sometimes block teen-agers from getting important information on birth control, safe sex and drug-related topics.
While many of the tested sites that related to non-pornographic health
issues came through the filters on low settings, searches conducted including the words "condoms," "safe sex" or "gay" with medium filter settings were blocked about 25 percent of the time. When placed on the highest settings, filters blocked almost 60 percent of searches with gay
This raises flags for groups like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education
Network (GLSEN). In 2001, GLSEN sent out an action alert to students and teachers across their network to see how Web filtering affects their
Internet searching. GLSEN found that most sites using the word "gay," even GLSEN's own site, were blocked on many school library systems.
"I attend public school in Virginia. I've tried to access GLSEN and GSA
(gay-straight alliance) resources, and the computer comes up saying the site is blocked and listed under 'sexual content,'" said one student who
responded to the GLSEN query. "There is a difference between porn and equality."
While the CIPA-related blocking on library terminals was initially considered a violation of the First Amendment, schools are still allowed to
filter content. In fact, nearly 75 percent of all schools use filtering
software, according to the Kaiser study.
Currently, public libraries give access to 10 percent of the 143 million Americans who use the Web. While libraries in larger cities like San
Francisco and Chicago have said they can forego federal funding to keep
mandatory filters off their computers, libraries in rural and lower income
areas depend on a piece of the $200 million funding pie provided by the government. If the law is upheld, those libraries will have no choice but to
The implications may go beyond searching for terms related to sex, health and drugs. Government censorship may be headed to a new level, according to a teacher who responded to GLSEN: "Our students were having difficulty researching the Middle East because the word 'bomb' was in many of the articles, and it filtered it out."