Civil Liberties

Cleaning Out the Stacks

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A new federal law orders libraries to install "filtering" software, to prevent kids from tapping the Internet's seamier educational offerings. The measure, part of the Children's Internet Protection Act signed last December, denies federal funding to libraries that don't set up blocking software. Meanwhile, several states—including Maine, Montana, and Arkansas—are considering their own versions of the federal mandate.

Now the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a growing list of additional plaintiffs are suing to stop the law. They charge that the filters block access to constitutionally protected material, a claim backed in a recent Consumer Reports study that tested six filtering programs on the market today. All of the programs blocked some child-friendly sites. (In a separate study, the program I-Gear blocked even such asexual political groups as he Electronic Frontier Foundation.)

Meanwhile, five out of six failed to deny access to 20 percent of the "bad" sites. The bottom line? A kid looking for boobs will still probably find them; a kid writing a report on breast cancer might have to look elsewhere.

Of course, that isn't likely to dissuade those terrified for the moral rectitude of an entire generation. Some are even attempting to cast online smut as a public health issue. Earlier this year in Livermore, California, the conservative Public Justice Institute asked an appeals court to order the town library to install filtering software. The group claims a 12-year-old boy was traumatized by hardcore pornography that he discovered with a library computer. The images, argued PJI, led him to exhibit "anti-social behavior."