The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law Monday requiring libraries that receive federal funds — including those in Mesa and Phoenix — to electronically filter adult content from Internet-accessible computers.
Mesa’s public library system, which received an estimated $216,000 in federal funds in the last two years, is the only library system in the East Valley that does not already use filtering software.
The 6-3 decision reverses an opinion last year by a U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, which struck down the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000. The law had been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association.
In stopping Congress from withholding millions of dollars in federal funding, the threejudge District Court panel argued that imperfect filtering software blocked too many legitimate Web sites.
However, the majority of Supreme Court justices rejected that idea, noting the government had an interest in keeping children and other patrons from seeing sexually explicit images, and software filters are currently the best way of accomplishing that goal.
Policies in Mesa and Phoenix libraries prohibit downloading sexually suggestive pictures on computers that can be seen by other patrons.
But as a May 2002 Tribune article revealed, not all patrons follow those rules. In one case, a 14-year-old boy was caught viewing pictures of children ages 5 to 9 years old engaged in sex acts.
Mesa officials said at the time they believed installing the filters used in other cities would violate their library patrons’ First Amendment right to free speech.
Mesa library director Patsy Hansel did not return a call to the Tribune on Monday, but wrote in an e-mail that the library staff and city attorneys will review the Supreme Court decision to determine their next step. If the Mesa library branches decide to install filters on all of its computers, no new software would need to be purchased because computers in the children’s sections already use the filters, Hansel wrote.
Hansel, a critic of Internet filters, wrote that she would work with other libraries to "call for full disclosure of precisely what sites filtering companies are blocking, who is deciding what is filtered, and what criteria are being used, since for some reason, filtering companies have been reluctant to share this information."
She added that "considerable" staff time would be needed to set up the software to meet standards set by the 2000 law.
Elizabeth Parker, a management assistant at the Phoenix library’s administrative offices, said officials are "trying to figure out how we need to react" to the ruling. Of the 12 Phoenix libraries’ 231 computers with public Internet access, only 64 in the children and teen sections are now filtered. Phoenix received $217,000 in federal funding last year, Parker said.
An estimated 14 million Americans rely on libraries as their only access to the Internet, and those opposed to the 2000 law felt that it amounted to censorship.
Yet Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in writing the majority opinion, said Congress had "wide latitudes" to attach conditions on federal funds. He wrote that since most libraries already choose to exclude adult materials from their collections, limiting access to similar materials on the Internet should be no different.
If a patron found that a legitimate site was blocked, "he need only ask a librarian to unblock it or (at least in the case of adults) disable the filter," Rehnquist wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the ruling operates as a "blunt nationwide restraint on adult access to ‘an enormous amount of valuable information’ that individual librarians cannot possibly review."
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In other developments Monday, the Supreme Court:
• Struck down a California law intended to help Holocaust survivors collect on insurance policies from the Nazi era. The court ruled that the law was unconstitutional meddling by a state in foreign affairs.
• Agreed to decide whether states can be sued for failing to install wheelchair ramps or other accommodations for the disabled. The issue involves the case of a paraplegic man who crawled two flights of steps to reach a hearing in a courthouse that lacked an elevator.
• Agreed to decide whether states can block local governments from offering local phone and Internet service in a case.
• Rejected an appeal from a New Jersey borough that wanted to bar the community’s Orthodox Jewish leaders from marking utility poles in a religious district.
• Declined to hear arguments on whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be allowed to limit speech it deems offensive in a park that it purchased from Salt Lake City. The decision lets stand a lower court ruling which said that since the church had guaranteed the city pedestrian access through the park at the time of the purchase, free-speech rights along the sidewalks through the plaza must be retained.