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July 23, 2001 01:50pm
Judge: U.S. Internet smut law may go to trial
Source: Reuters
by: David Morgan

(PHILADELPHIA, PA) -- A free-speech challenge to a new U.S. law designed to protect children from pornography on the Internet may go to trial next February despite a government bid to get the case dismissed, a judge suggested on Monday.

A coalition of public libraries, library patrons and Web site operators filed the challenge in March against the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000, which would withhold federal funds from libraries and schools that fail to install smut-filtering software on personal computers.

The Justice Department, which is representing the Federal Communications Commission and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in the suit, asked a federal court in Philadelphia to dismiss the case saying the challenge is without merit.

But on Monday, the U.S. appellate judge who heads a special three-judge panel set up to oversee the case, said the constitutional questions raised by the lawsuit appear too numerous and too complex to be examined without a full-blown trial, which was tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14, 2002.

``There are a zillion issues here,'' Chief Judge Edward Becker of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals told a team of Justice Department attorneys during an hour-long hearing.

``This case is unquestionably destined for the United States Supreme Court, is it not? ... Wouldn't this court and the Supreme Court be much better equipped to deal with this after discovery and after trial?'' he asked.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the Children's Internet Protection Act into law in December. It was the federal government's latest attempt to control pornography on the Internet after two earlier attempts were stymied.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act saying it infringed upon free speech. And in 1999, a U.S. district judge in Philadelphia issued an injunction against the 1998 Child Online Protection Act. That matter will be argued before the high court in the fall.

Three-dozen plaintiffs, headed by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, allege the Children's Internet Protection Act violates free speech rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs argue that installing the pornography-filtering software constrains the ability of adults to access lawful material, including Web sites of interest to homosexuals and women's groups.

They also complain that the law could leave individual librarians to determine what adults accessing the Internet should be allowed to see.

``We say the traditional role of libraries is to provide material that the patrons want, not material that libraries and librarians believe are correct,'' ACLU senior staff counsel Chris Hansen said.

But Justice Department attorney Rupa Bhattacharyya, arguing that the challenge was without merit, reminded the three judges that the law does not constrain free speech but simply imposes conditions on libraries that choose to accept federal money.

``The government is not required to subsidize the exercise of the first amendment. The government is not required to subsidize Internet access,'' she said. ``Libraries were given money to connect themselves to the Internet for educational purposes.''

Public libraries that fail to comply with the Internet law would risk losing government-provided discounts on Internet access, as well as federal grants. The library association, which represents 3,000 public libraries, said the amount of money in question totals about $215 million a year.

Becker said the panel would rule later on whether the case should be dismissed, but set no deadline for a decision.

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