April 8, 1998

The following letter was sent to the members of the Senate Commerce Committee and other key senators. The complete list of recipients follows the text.

I am writing to express concern about legislative efforts to restrict access to the Internet in schools and libraries, and particularly about S. 1619, the Internet School Filtering Act, which would require schools and libraries to use filtering and blocking devices in order to qualify for federal financial aid for Internet access. These conditions raise serious First Amendment questions, because they would limit access to a great deal of legal and valuable information.

Filtering and blocking devices, as attractive as they may seem, are clumsy, over-inclusive, and hopelessly subjective. It has been demonstrated time and again that such filters and blocking tools cannot screen accurately enough to delete only unlawful material; they inevitably also restrict access to legal material. The enclosed background paper, Censorship's Tools Du Jour details the inadequacies of filtering and blocking technology, and explains the basis for our concerns over current legislative proposals.

We are sympathetic with the desire to find ways to encourage children to use the Internet for educational purposes, and with the concerns of some parents about material on the Internet that they deem inappropriate for their children. Parents who wish to do so may purchase blocking and filtering software, whatever its flaws and limitations, for use in their homes. However, the government is not a parent, public schools are not the family den, and conditioning federal funding on the use of filters in schools and libraries is not a private act – it's censorship, and in our view it's unconstitutional.

There is a useful role for government to address the legitimate concerns of parents. We urge you to propose and support legislation that would allocate government funding for educational programs to teach students rules for responsible and safe use of the Internet, and the critical skills they need to make this technology an effective educational tool. Such programs would be much more valuable than filtering or blocking – the restrictive approach works only when students are in school, for a limited period of time, and teaches no critical skills. Sooner or later, students graduate to the real world, or use a computer without blocking software. In addition to learning tips for safe Internet use, an educational program could teach students how to use the technology to find information quickly and efficiently, and how to exercise critical thinking skills to assess the quality and reliability of information they receive. This would be a more lasting and valuable lesson than filtering sites containing the letters "s" "e" "x" in sequence – which results in blocking sites containing the words "sexton," "sex education," "Mars exploration," and a host of other interesting topics.

We urge you to direct your laudable concern for children's welfare and education into a program that will really help children learn how to benefit from the Internet, and protect themselves from any risks it may pose. Help schools do what they are supposed to do – give children knowledge and skills they can use for life.

Very truly yours,

Joan E. Bertin

Executive Director

National Coalition Against Censorship

Sent to:

Senator Spencer Abraham

Senator John Ashcroft

Senator Max Baucus

Senator Jeff Bingaman

Senator John Breaux

Senator Conrad Burns

Senator John Chafee

Senator Susan Collins

Senator Kent Conrad

Senator Chris Dodd

Senator Byron Dorgan

Senator Wendell Ford

Senator John Glenn

Senator Slade Gorton

Senator Fritz Hollings

Senator James Jeffords

Senator Tim Johnson

Senator Edward Kennedy

Senator J. Robert Kerrey

Senator John Kerry

Senator Patrick Leahy

Senator Patty Murray

Senator Jack Reed

Senator Charles Robb

Senator Jay Rockefeller

Senator Olympia J. Snowe

Senator Arlen Specter

Senator Ron Wyden