INTERNET FREE EXPRESSION ALLIANCE
Joint Letter to Juvenile Justice Conferees on
Mandatory Internet Filtering
September 28, 1999
Re: Internet Filtering Mandate for Schools and Libraries
The undersigned organizations write to express our concerns about section 1402 of the House-passed Juvenile Justice bill, which would mandate that schools and libraries receiving "E-Rate" universal service funds purchase and use Internet filtering software to regulate access by minors.
We believe that the majority of Americans share our conviction that parents and teachers -- not the federal government -- should provide children with guidance about accessing information on the Internet. Clumsy and ineffective blocking programs are nothing more than a "quick fix" solution to parental concerns, often providing a false sense of security that children will not be exposed to material which parents may find inappropriate.
The provision's one-size-fits-all federal solution for school districts and communities throughout the country denies parents, schools and local libraries the opportunity to consider other approaches to Internet safety, including training classes to help children bring critical skills to the Internet; adult supervision of Internet use by minors; highlighting recommended sites to assist parents in navigating the Internet; and establishment of limited time periods for supervised use of the Internet by young children. The choice to embody one or several technological or non-technological solutions in an "Acceptable Use Policy" is best made by local authorities in light of local conditions, values and resources.
The technology that Section 1402 would enshrine in federal law is evolving, but in its current immature state it is often ineffective. As a result, filtering software frequently restricts access to valuable, constitutionally protected online speech about topics ranging from safe sex, AIDS, gay and lesbian issues, news articles, and women's rights. Religious groups such as the Society of Friends and the Glide United Methodist Church have been blocked by these imperfect filtering tools, as have advocacy groups like the American Family Association. This type of arbitrary censorship is a blatant violation of the First Amendment when mandated by the federal government.
Under the Supreme Court's 1997 decision in Reno v. ACLU, the Internet is accorded the highest level of First Amendment protection. Therefore, any attempted regulation of Internet speech is constitutionally suspect. Section 1402, with its use of the constitutionally vague "harmful to minors" standard, is unlikely to withstand First Amendment scrutiny.
The proposed legislation would require schools and libraries either to expend scarce resources to comply with federal law, or forgo participation in the universal service program. Thus, Section 1402 unconstitutionally conditions the receipt of federal funds on the waiver of First Amendment rights. See FCC v. League of Women Voters of California, 468 U.S. 364 (1984). If this type of condition were constitutional, there would be no limit to congressional micro-management of local school curricula. In addition, those schools and libraries which have already adopted a local Acceptable Use Policy will be compelled to implement filtering software, thereby increasing the expense associated with Internet usage by minors.
Finally, filtering technology not only denies children the ability to receive online speech that they have a constitutional right to receive; it also prevents adults who rely on public libraries for Internet access from receiving materials which may be "deemed to be harmful to minors," but which adults have a right to receive.
For the foregoing reasons, we urge you to consider alternatives to a federal requirement to employ filtering and blocking technologies. Those other approaches, as outlined above, are more likely to be effective and less likely to violate the Constitution.
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union
Laura W. Murphy
Washington Office Director
American Library Association
Assistant Director, Washington Office
The Censorware Project
James S. Tyre
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Director of Legal Services
Electronic Privacy Information Center
David L. Sobel
Freedom to Read Foundation
Judith F. Krug
Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
Journalism Education Association
H. L. Hall
National Coalition Against Censorship
People For the American Way
Public Policy Director