District filters obscene sites

Critics say Internet filters infringe on civil rights and don't work

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2001

The Juneau School District will block access from its computers to obscene Internet sites to be eligible for certain federal funds.

But the city libraries, which either aren't eligible for the funds or don't intend to apply for them soon, haven't installed such filters.

The federal funds are worth more than $12 million a year to Alaska's schools and libraries, according to the state Department of Education.

Critics of the federal law that requires filters say they don't block all the sites Congress wanted blocked, and they do block sites that are constitutionally protected speech.

"It's as though the police had taken a book out of Barnes and Noble without telling you what they took," said Chris Hansen, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union at its New York headquarters.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, signed into law in December, requires schools and public libraries that want federal technology funds to block Internet access to visual depictions that are obscene or child pornography.

It also requires those entities to block access by people under 17 to visual depictions that appeal to a prurient interest in nudity, sex or excrement and that lack serious artistic, political or scientific value.

Under the law, computer users could ask the local school or library administrators to unblock a site for "bona fide research," but critics said that term is undefined.

The Juneau School Board this week approved the purchase of Screen Door, a product that blocks up to 900,000 Internet sites under various categories, out of tens of millions of Web sites.

Blocked sites don't show up on the computer screen, even on search engines, said Helena Poist, marketing director for the Ames, Iowa-based manufacturer, Palisade Systems, which buys the lists of blocked sites from another company.

The Fairbanks school district has used the product for 1 1/2 years and is pleased with it, said Greg Yocum, the Fairbanks school district's director of technology.

"We knew at some point this (law) was going to happen anyway," he said. "We decided there are so many kids and so many machines and you can watch only so many of them."

Screen Door will cost the Juneau School District $5,433 in its first year and $3,413 each year after that for monthly updates of blocked sites, school officials said.

Officials said that's a small price to pay to be eligible for a federal subsidy of about $64,000 a year for Internet telephone line connections, and for continued access to federal technology grants that have been worth $300,000 to the district in the past.

The law doesn't go into effect for public libraries until July 2002, but it may not matter much to Juneau libraries, which can't get a federal discount on Internet access, said librarian Carol McCabe. The library system doesn't intend to apply in the near future for the federal technology funds that require compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act, she said.

Most school systems in Alaska already have filters, said Della Matthis, who coordinates a federal reimbursement program for the state Department of Education. But most public libraries in Alaska don't filter their computers. They monitor patrons to see that they follow policies against viewing sexually explicit sites.

"So this is an issue that the local policy making has already taken place on, and now we have the feds coming in. It doesn't seem necessary to us," said Patience Frederiksen, president of the Alaska Library Association.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, which includes the Alaska Library Association, have jointly sued to block the law's provisions that apply to public libraries. A U.S. Justice Department motion to dismiss the case is scheduled for arguments in late July in a Philadelphia federal court.

Congressional supporters of the law said it should pass legal scrutiny because the provisions are voluntary. Only schools and libraries that want certain federal funds have to obey the law, they pointed out. And the law leaves it up to local authorities what to filter, said David Crane, a staffer for the Senate Commerce Committee. Supporters said obscenity and child pornography are illegal, anyway.

Hansen of the ACLU said the organization hasn't yet sued over the school provisions, but it believes those are unconstitutional as well.

The filters are an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, and they block constitutionally protected speech, the ACLU said in its lawsuit.

The ACLU court filing said Internet sites blocked in the past for being sexually explicit include those of the Mormon church, universities, newspapers, a map of Disney World, and the text of "Jane Eyre" and of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the abortion-rights case of Roe v. Wade.

The general public and customers of filtering systems don't know which sites will be blocked because the companies that generate those lists consider them to be proprietary information. The lists used by Screen Door wouldn't be available to Juneau school officials, said Poist, marketing director for Palisade.

Screen Door offers to block sites in 27 categories, including art and culture, chat rooms and e-mail, criminal skills, drugs, hate speech, and opinion, politics and religion. Businesses, for example, may not want employees using the Internet for nonbusiness reasons at work.

Juneau school superintendent Gary Bader said the school district's primary objective would be to comply with the law, and it would proceed very cautiously if it went beyond that.

"I think we're talking mostly about pornography or obscene materials, and I think there won't be much confusion about whether it's age-appropriate or has any business in our schools," he said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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