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Supreme Court: Internet Filtering

Emily Shektoff
Executive Director, American Library Association
Thursday, June 12, 2003; 3:00 PM

The Supreme Court today upheld a law requiring libraries to either use Internet filtering software or forfeit federal funding. By a vote of 6-3 the court rejected arguments by the American Library Association (ALA) and American Civil Liberties Union that the law violated the free speech rights of library patrons.

washingtonpost.com technology reporter David McGuire hosts Emily Shektoff, the executive director of the ALA's Washington, D.C. office, on Monday, June 23 at 3 p.m. ET, to discuss the ruling.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


David McGuire: Hello Emily, thank you for joining us. The Supreme Court today ruled that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires libraries to install pornography filters on their computers, or forgo federal funding, is constitutional. Could you tell us a little about the decision? What's the ALA's response to the ruling, and where do libraries go from here? Emily Shektoff: ALA is diappointed with the Supreme's Court's decision. It really doesn't acknowledge the different ways public libraries deliver crucial services to adults and children.

ALA will try to get full information to Library Boards so they can make informed decisions of their response. Filtering companies need to be more transparent in their criteria of what they filter, what their political philosphy is, so libraries who decide they must filter will know which compnay will be best for their community's needs.

ALA wants to make sure library patrons get the best service possible under these difficult conditions.

ALA will be watching to make sure libraries can get software which will allow adults to immediately disable the filter, as Justice Kennedy demanded.


Potomac, MD: How do you think that this ruling will change the typical library visitors? experience at the public library, do you really think that there will be substantial changes or will it only affect a few people?

Emily Shektoff: Library patrons who are doing research on health or political activities may want to get the filter disabled before they begin their online experience so that none of their precious minutes are wasted waiting for the librarian to disable the filter. The top complaint we hear in libraries, actually, is that there aren't enough computers and online time available.


Washington, DC: Had the ALA prevailed, how would libraries prevent children from accessing websites that they aren't allowed to access from home? Don't libraries have some form of in loco parentis responsibility to parents who bring their children there?

Emily Shektoff: Libraries would continue to offer education for both parents and children on how to have a safe and responsible experience on the Internet. We would have invested our scant resources in better ways to provide this education. Time and again, government studies have shown that education is the best and most affordable way to ensure Internet safety. Most libraries have policies and procedures in place, and Internet classes are oversubscribed. This is where libraries want to put their resources.


David McGuire: You mentioned Justice Kennedy's insistence that the filters be easily disabled in response to requests from adult researchers. Is it difficult to disable filters now? Emily Shektoff: Unlike in a private home where you have one PC, most libraries are complicated systems with many terminals, often in more than one building. Their multimillion dollar technology is in place, and this law will require a complicated overhaul of a library district's computer system.

Software must be developed that will allow a librarian to quickly and easily disable a specific terminal at the request of any library user.


Redwood City, CA: I'm not sure I understand why libraries oppose this law. If I were a librarian I'd want some protection from trenchcoat-wearing weirdos using library computers to surf for porn. Are any of your members happy about having this protection?

Emily Shektoff: Most librarians oppose this law because they were already dealing with the issue of pornography. All libraries in this country have procedures which address Internet access.

Librarians understand that it is crucial for them to help their patrons get access to quality information when they need it.

Even libraries that offer some filtered access, believe this decision about how and where to filter should be made at the local level -- not with an unfunded federal mandate.


Washington : I don't understand why the ALA made such a fuss over this law. I'm against censorship, but the government isn't censoring anything here, is it? They're just saying - "if you want our money, you'll play by our rules." Aren't you overreacting?

Emily Shektoff: This federal law would compel libraries to give their patrons second-class service. Either less-advanced technology because they don't have federal funds or censored information because they need the federal support.

Libraries have always been the local institution which ensures equal access to needed services. Fifty years ago, it was literacy training. Thirty years ago, it was civics classes to become a citizen. Today, it is online homework help and instruction on how to use the Interent.

Where you live or your economic circumstance should not determine your access to the full range of social, political, medical, cultural and other information.

Every technicial expert on both sides of this issue continue to say filters cannot block only information that is harmful to minors. All these technologies block constitutionally protected, important information. Each company has different criteria, so we don't know who is blocking what.

The government is performing economic blackmail forcing libraries to choose between content censorship and technology.


Waco, TX: Hi Emily,
You mentioned that "Most librarians oppose this law because they were already dealing with the issue of pornography." What are they doing and why haven't those efforts appeased Congress and the Supreme Court?

Emily Shektoff: Across this country libraries are addressing this issue in local ways that accommodate their needs. In many libraries, they have education classes for children and their parents, teaching them how to have safe and responsible experiences on the Internet. Some of these classes reinforce the policies and procedures of the library governing Internet use.

Other libraries filter some terminals, such as in the children's room, or scattered throughout the building to give users a choice. Still other libraries have chosen 'smart cards,' which allow a parent to decide the level of access which is right for their child. Many libraries also use "white lists" which direct children to the most age-appropriate and useful Web sites.

While everyone would love an easy solution, both the Internet and technology are changing every day, and libraries want to change with these advances and the changing needs of our users. The best solutions are complex and multi-layered, and may need adjustment over time.

But the one overriding fact is that only a local library can know what is best for their own community -- from Los Angeles to Chattanooga. The federal government should allow the citizens in our communities to make these decisions for themselves.


Washington, DC: Will the e-rate cover the costs of filters?

Can you give an example of the amount of money a library gets in one year from the e-rate funds? How much money would a large urban library system like DC or Montgomery County or Baltimore receive?

Emily Shektoff: E-rate will NOT cover the cost of filters, nor will any other federal funding. Many libraries have invested a lot of time and money in a solution that works best for them. Now they will have to junk what they've done and start over again.

More than $1 billion has gone to thousands of libraries over the last five years through e-rate and LSTA funding. This money enables over 95 percent of public libraries ot offer free public access to the Internet, and has made the public library the number one place for online access for those who do not have computers at home or work.

It has also opened up the world to children and adults interested in learning. Federal funding has allowed many states to create statewide databases with articles and facts and digital information from around the world. Access to this information is what keeps our economy humming and our citizenry empowered.


Baltimore: I support your position on Internet filtering and today's opinion; however, the question of censorship versus broad access to material that many might find offensive is not a new one. How do you respond to those who would say libraries and librarians have always served as filters/censors by virtue of the material which they procure or reject? Certainly, libraries do not offer access to hard copy pronography; why is this any different?

Emily Shektoff: The Internet is an amazing technology that allows library patrons access from around the world free at the push of a button.

Librarians want to do everything they can to enable patrons to select the quality information and thus expand their universe.

Librarians have always been limited by space and resources from offering their patrons as much as they desire and deserve. Librarians were forced to prioritize based on their community's interests. Collection development is a very inclusive process. Librarians are taught a number of different avenues to pursue to get library patrons the books or information they are seeking.

Another benefit of the Internet is making all kinds of information available to everyone in the community, not just a majority of the community.

No matter how arcane your science interests, there are Web sites available for you; no matter how obscure your geneological source material, you may find a Web site to meet your needs. But your library also still has the bestseller you're anxious to try, your favorite mystery writer waiting to scare you and an engaging book to listen to on that long trip to grandma's house.


Lewiston, Maine: I am a college literature teacher. If I assign my students a paper on Nabokov's Lolita (or on the two excellent films of the novel), and they decide to do research in the town library, are they probably going to run into trouble getting info? I understand "Lolita" is one of the words that a filtering program would probably flag.

Emily Shektoff: Unfortunately, buying filters is a little like buying a car and not being able to look under the hood. Most companies consider their block lists proprietary and won't tell you what you are getting... which could include 'Lolita.'

The ALA again calls on filtering companies to tell us what their criteria is so we can be sure library boards know the political or social agenda of the company they may choose if they are forced to filter to keep funding.


David McGuire: Will any libraries simply refuse to install filters, forsaking their share of federal support? Is that even a legitimate option for most libraries? Emily Shektoff: Yes, we know that many library directors are being told by their community library boards that they will not accept censored information. These communities depend on the library for important health, social and political information, and library boards are committed to making sure library patrons get all the information they need. One of the plaintiffs in this case, in fact, was a candidate for office who ran supporting mandatory filters until he learned his own campaign Web site was being blocked. This is not uncommon.

Libraries will have to become even more creative to make sure the resources are there for the services the community demands.


Washington, DC: If, as you said "The top complaint we hear in libraries, actually, is that there aren't enough computers and online time available,"
why would we want to let patrons use valuable time viewing porn on the Internet when someone is waiting to use the computer for school or personal research?

Emily Shektoff: Our experience is that most library patrons use library resources -- including the Internet -- responsibly. One patron looking over the shoulder of another patron seeking personal health answers or certain modern art, might find that image offensive or even pornographic. But, in fact, this is helping with a serious family health problem or college research project.

There is always the possibility of the occasional patron using resources inappropriately or illegally. This bad behavior should be reported to the librarian.

We know filters necessarily overblock AND underblock -- and we fear this gives parents and caregivers a false sense of security that their children are protected when they are not.


Washington Navy Yard, DC: As the husband of a librarian and an active library patron, I am saddened to see that the Supreme Court was unable to see how filtering software will miss some obscene materials and may prevent users from getting necessary materials. They also failed to see the financial burdens on the already strained library systems

It seems that the best solution now is to get friendly legislators to write a better law or repeal this one. What will ALA do correct this horrible decision?

Emily Shektoff: I am the director of the ALA's Washington Office, and I would hope that all those people who agree that this decision is faulty will communicate with their federal legislators. The Supreme Court is as high as you can go judicially, so it's up to the legislature to rectify this dangerous decision.

Because all library boards will be making the decision about what they will choose, you should talk to your library board about your concerns. And talk to your local legislators asking them to make the resources available so library boards will have the financial wherewithal to turn down censorship.

You know your libraries and librarians, and you know how well they work for you. Don't let Congress force your library board to change its well-thought-out policies.


David McGuire: Unfortunately we're out of time. I'd like to thank Emily Sheketoff for taking the time to be with us today and our audience for submitting so many thoughtful questions.


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