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Ruling Halts Internet Limits

Computers: A U.S. court rejects a law forcing public libraries to block sexually explicit sites. The government may appeal the case.


WASHINGTON — The nation's public libraries cannot be forced to filter sexually explicit Web sites from their computers as a condition of receiving federal funds, a three-judge panel in Philadelphia ruled Friday.

The decision struck down on free-speech grounds the Children's Internet Protection Act, a spending measure adopted by Congress two years ago.

The judges, who heard eight days of testimony, concluded that software programs designed to filter out such material are flawed and ineffective. Although the law sought to block access to "visual depictions" of sex, the software scanned for words, not images. Students researching breast cancer or sexual orientations were blocked, while some pornography slipped through.

The law "requires [librarians] to violate the 1st Amendment rights of their patrons," said Chief Judge Edward R. Becker of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. "The filtering programs bar access to a substantial amount of speech on the Internet that is clearly constitutionally protected for adults and minors."

Friday's ruling marks the third legal setback for those in Congress who want to shield minors from pornography on the Internet.

The Supreme Court struck down a sweeping law in 1997 that made it a crime to put "indecent" material on the Internet. And earlier this month, it blocked enforcement of a narrower measure that sought to keep minors away from commercial pornography on the World Wide Web.

While the first two laws sought to regulate computers at home, the third sought to regulate those in public libraries.

About 10% of the estimated 143 million Americans who use the Internet rely on libraries for their access, according to some studies.

Friday's ruling does not say local libraries may not use such filters, nor does it assert that patrons have a free-speech right to see pornography on library computers. Rather, it says Congress may not require libraries to use such filters.

Across the nation, public libraries have adopted a range of policies to deal with the issue of Internet pornography.

Some use filters on computers that are reserved for children. Some libraries screen out hard-core sex sites, while still others rely on what the court called the "tap on the shoulder" approach for patrons who are ignoring the library's policy on pornography.

"Libraries are locally run, and we encourage them to have acceptable use policies," said Emily Sheketoff, director of the American Library Assn.'s Washington office. "These policies are developed within the community. We objected to the federal government mandating this censorship policy for every terminal in the library."

In its third attempt at legislation, Congress sought to rely on the lever of federal money. Most public libraries receive some federal funds; they also take advantage of government-sponsored discounts for Internet use. Libraries that refused to install the software filters on all their computers by July 1 would lose both forms of aid.

The American Library Assn. and several individual libraries challenged the law as unconstitutional, and Friday's ruling prevents it from taking effect.

The court opinion cited key testimony from Stanford University linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg. He tested three filter software programs and found them wanting.

"In the tests," he said in an interview Friday, "the filters ruled out a number of useful sex-education sites, among others," including the home page for the Center for Sex Research at Cal State Northridge, several Planned Parenthood sites and a French pharmaceutical site.

Software designed to detect nude images is particularly faulty, Nunberg said. "The state of image recognition is abominable. Some of the programs can recognize naked flesh, but can't tell if it's a nude body or Mark Spitz in a swimsuit. They also routinely pick up pictures of pigs, tapioca pudding and sand dunes."

Barbara Comstock, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said government lawyers were disappointed in the ruling and will probably appeal to the Supreme Court.

The government may well fare better in the high court. The justices are more inclined to say government-subsidized speech is not necessarily free of regulation.

Four years ago, the court upheld a federal law that required the National Endowment of the Arts to take into account "general standards of decency" in awarding grants.

But the justices are often closely split on this 1st Amendment issue.

A 5-4 ruling in 1991 upheld a federal law that barred doctors in subsidized clinics from telling their pregnant patients about abortion. Last year, however, a 5-4 ruling struck down on free-speech grounds a law that barred government-subsidized lawyers from challenging welfare reforms.


Times staff writer David Colker in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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