Issue 90, Summer 2003

by Joan E. Bertin

In 1671, the governor of Virginia said, “I thank God we have not free schools nor printing….For learning has brought disobedience and heresy, and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government.”

This pretty well sums up the sentiment behind the Children’s Internet Protection Act. CIPA is Congress’ most recent effort to protect children from sex online. It requires libraries receiving federal funds for internet access to install filters to block anything considered “harmful to minors.” Even adults must obtain permission to get unfiltered Internet access.

The American Library Association and others challenged the law on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the statute, in words that conjure up musty libraries of old books, rather than modern communications and research tools.

They conclude it is not “unduly burdensome” for an adult to get a computer unblocked, even though this could take hours and even days. One justice compared the inconvenience to getting access to stacks and interlibrary loans. I wonder when he last worked under such conditions. The op-ed I wrote last week about this case would never have been published if I’d had to wait even four hours to get my computer unblocked.

CIPA should be subtitled “Big Brother Meets Catch-22.” Library patrons are “protected” from unknown material that an unidentified reviewer has blocked based on undisclosed criteria. How will a library patron even know to ask to have the filter disabled when they don’t know what is missing?

CIPA could be even more devastating for minors who depend on the Internet for candid and accurate information about health and sexuality, relationships, and other matters that teenagers are often reluctant to raise with their parents. The web can literally be a life-saving resource—for sexually active teens who have no other access to information about HIV/AIDS and for isolated gay and questioning teens, whose high suicide risk is reduced by online support groups.

The Court hasn’t exactly banned public access to the printing press—just limited who can fully enjoy its virtual counterpart.