Back in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, Chief Justice William Rehnquist took pains in his majority opinion to note that filtering online access for underage library patrons would not inconvenience adults. They could simply have a librarian unblock it.
Any First Amendment difficulties with the legislation, Rehnquist maintained, “are dispelled by the ease with which (adult) patrons may have the filtering software disabled.”
Idaho state Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, feels no such qualms about safeguarding freedom of information. He is backing a bill that would require public libraries in the state to filter Internet access for everyone. Why? Because smut is all around us, and blotting it out is too urgent a task to be trusted to communities.
Granted, it’s well-established that the First Amendment does not protect pornography. But a problem arises when trying to strike the boundary between what’s porn and what’s permissible. Another Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart, was quotable but not particularly helpful when he summed it up this way in a 1964 case: “I know it when I see it.”
But if the definition of pornography is imprecise, Internet filtering technology is even more so. Filtering software that was mentioned in the CIPA case couldn’t recognize whether Super Bowl XXX was a football game or an adult film, one of endless examples of benign content being screened out even as some objectionable material gets through.
Librarians are well aware of the software limitations, one of the reasons they tend to oppose proposals such as Shirley’s. Their commitment to helping patrons conduct legitimate research would be needlessly complicated by universal filtering.
And then there’s the cost, a problem in the best of times and a budgetary calamity under current economic conditions.
Rep. Shirley’s sensitivity to what he sees as an onslaught of filth (“It’s been thrust upon is. It’s everywhere.”) seems a bit of an overreaction. Even a staunch conservative like William Rehnquist saw constitutional merit in protecting adults’ right to decide for themselves what is and what isn’t appropriate to read or view.
Somehow, though, this proposal passed out of the Idaho House in spite of the ineffectiveness, the cost, the disdain for local control and the encroachment on an adult citizen’s individual liberty. Sounds like what some Idaho politicians normally would call a “nanny state.”
Let’s hope the Senate shows more restraint.