Since the internet has been available in schools and libraries in this country, there has been a debate about what should be accessible to users, especially minors. The amount of information disseminated on the world wide web is vast, with some sources valuable for scholarly and personal research and entertainment, and some sources that contain material that is objectionable to some (ie. pornography, gambling, hate groups sites, violent materials). Some information potentially accessible on the internet such as child pornography and obscenity is strictly illegal and is not protected under the First Amendment. Some information available on the internet that may be valuable to some is at the same time perceived to be worthless or potentially harmful to some. For libraries serving the public, there has been controversy on the issue of providing the internet, free of censorship or filtering, to users. While some librarians and their professional associations align with ideals of free and unfiltered access to all information provided by the internet, some feel that filtering internet content to exclude possibly objectionable materials is a reasonable measure to prevent potential harm to minors.
In 1998, a district court in Virginia made a ruling on the use of filtering software in public libraries that set a precedent for the unconstitutionality of internet filters. Todd Anten’s article, “Please Disable the Entire Filter: Why Non-Removable Filters on Public Library Computers Violate the First Amendment gives an account of the ruling. The Loudoun County Library had instituted restrictions to internet access on all library computers with software that would block sites that “displayed obscene material, child pornography, and material deemed harmful to minors” (Anten 74). This decision was based on general user input as to the materials that should be available in their community library. Plaintiffs claimed that constitutionally protected materials were wrongly blocked and that the Loudoun Policy violated their First Amendment rights. The court agreed and found the Loudoun Policy of filtering for all patrons unconstitutional. The court held that there were less restrictive means available to achieve the privacy level demanded by the Loudoun County community than interfering with free speech. Less restrictive, in the court’s opinion, were privacy screens for computer monitors and a certain degree of physical monitoring by library staff.
Congress made an attempt to place content-based restrictions on school and public library internet use in the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000. This act requires the use of some type of internet filtering software for all public libraries that attain funds from the Federal government (in the form of E-rate discounts or Library Services and Technology Act grants). Should a library refuse to comply with CIPA guidelines, that library would have to maintain its technological...