Web Porn Filters at Libraries Upheld

Times Staff Writer

Public libraries that receive federal funds may be forced to install software filters on their computers to shield children from pornography, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Library patrons do not have a free-speech right to view pornography, the court said. Moreover, the government is entitled to take special measures to protect children, the justices said.

The 6-3 decision revives a law passed by Congress three years ago that ties federal subsidies for libraries to their use of computer software designed to block Web sites with sexually explicit material that is “harmful to minors.” Adults may ask that the filters be turned off.

“The Constitution does not guarantee the right to acquire information at a public library without any risk of embarrassment,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said in upholding the law.


About 14 million people use library computers to connect to the Internet. Last year, Congress gave public libraries more than $200 million in grants and discounts for Internet service.

It is now up to libraries to decide how to comply with the law.

In Southern California, some library officials said the ruling will have little effect.

Los Angeles County library officials said they installed a voluntary filter program in all 84 libraries last winter in response to local concerns about children’s access to pornography. Children who sign on to the county’s computers automatically trigger a filter unless their parents have decided to let them have unfettered access, said library spokeswoman Nancy Mahr. Adults can choose to view the Internet with or without the filter, she said.

The city of Los Angeles’ 68 branch libraries do not receive federal funds and should not be affected, said spokesman Peter Persic. However, library officials and the city attorney’s office will review the decision to see whether it has implications for the city libraries, he said.

Orange County Librarian John Adams said the county has filters on its 500 computers in 30 libraries. He said federal funds account for $35,000 of the system’s $30-million budget -- not an amount, Adams said, that would compel the county to “cooperate or not.”

“What I find disturbing about this is that the question [of filtering] is no longer to be decided by local residents,” Adams said. “It runs counter to why I think libraries have been successful in reflecting the interests and standards of our communities.”

Ventura County library officials called the ruling “good news.” Starrett Kreissman, director of the Ventura County Library, said the system “already filters the Internet for children, unless their parents request” otherwise. The court’s decision will eliminate that option and will extend the policy to require Internet filtering for adult library users, unless they ask that it be turned off. The library system receives a small amount of federal money for Internet and communications support.

If the costs of implementing and enforcing tougher Internet restrictions outweigh the support the library receives from federal coffers, Kreissman said she would consider doing without the federal money.

Similarly, a librarian in San Bernardino County said libraries there have already moved to install filters on public computers.

“We see little impact,” said Ed Kiecykowski, the chief county librarian. Three years ago, the county Board of Supervisors began requiring the installation of filters, he said.

Federal funds are funneled through the California State Library, which has received $16.1 million for grants to libraries around the state in the next fiscal year.

Diana Paque, chief of the state’s Library Development Services Bureau, said her office has received 127 applications for grants ranging from $5,000 to $1.3 million, but only a handful for Internet access.

“Right now, it’s hard to say how [the court’s ruling] will impact libraries in the state. However, there was nothing really new because everybody knew what had been proposed. The only difference is that now the proposal is going to be enforced,” she said.

The practical effect of the ruling is that “it will make [libraries] think twice about applying for a grant,” she added.

Monday’s ruling also has no effect on the Internet in general or on home computers. In recent years, the Supreme Court has voided two laws that sought to regulate sexually explicit material that minors could obtain online. In both cases, the court said the bans went too far and imposed censorship on adults.

The legal dispute in the library case also focused on whether a law designed to protect children would infringe on the free-speech rights of adults.

Lawyers for the American Library Assn. contended that the software filters were clumsy and ineffective. They said thousands of Web sites would be blocked.

Sometimes, the reason was apparent. For example, a Web site that dealt with breast cancer was blocked because of its subject matter. Sometimes, travel sites that portrayed suntanned bodies by swimming pools were blocked as obscene by filters that react to photos of human flesh.

In some instances, the reason for the blocks remained a mystery. For example, one filter blocked the home page of a Canadian hunting and fishing club.

The library association’s suit went before a three-judge court in Philadelphia. Last year, those federal judges struck down the law because they were convinced that the filters screened out too much that was neither obscene nor pornographic.

But the Supreme Court took up the government’s appeal in the case of U.S. vs. American Library Assn. and upheld the law without delving too deeply into how it will work in practice.

The chief justice said Congress is entitled to put limits on how federal funds are used. He noted that in 1998, the high court upheld Congress’ demand that the National Endowment for the Arts consider “standards of decency” before awarding arts grants. While artists are free to say what they wish, Congress is also free to set some limits on how public funds are used, the court said. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined Rehnquist’s opinion.

In concurring opinions, Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer said the law need not violate the free-speech rights of adults since they remain free to ask that the filter on their computer be disconnected.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the law should be struck down as a “statutory blunderbuss that mandates this vast amount of over-blocking” of material that is protected by the 1st Amendment. Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented as well.

Officials at the library association said they were disappointed by the ruling.

“Today’s decision forces libraries to choose between federal funding for technology improvements and censorship. Millions of library users will lose,” the group said.

But others applauded the ruling for protecting children from smut. “Congress enacted the [law] so that federal tax dollars wouldn’t be used to turn libraries into dirty peep shows open to kids,” said Jan LaRue, counsel for Concerned Women for America. “The court soundly rejected the inane idea that the 1st Amendment requires taxpayers to provide access to illegal porn in a library.”

In defending the law, Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson argued that libraries make decisions every day as to what to put on their shelves. They do not -- and need not -- subscribe to Hustler magazine or buy X-rated videos, he said. For the same reason, he added, they may block sexually explicit Internet material without violating the free-speech rights of patrons.


Times staff writers Matea Gold, Kristina Sauerwein, Andy Olsen, Denise M. Bonilla and H.G. Reza contributed to this report.