It was almost twenty years ago when The Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) came to fruition. The necessity for CIPA became apparent during the 1990’s as the availability and integration of the Internet grew rapidly. As the Internet was not available to all citizens at that time due to location or cost, libraries served as a logical provider of Internet access to the community. It did not take long however for the concept of unintended consequences to emerge. While the Internet provided a near unlimited store of valuable information, it also contained an expansive aggregate of pornography as well.
The ease of accessibility of these sexual materials posed serious problems for libraries, which serve patrons within the community of all ages including minors and small children. Besides the direct access of pornographic material during a web session, some users failed to close out of their browser sessions, leaving sexually based images left on the screen for open display, exposing them both staff and children haphazardly passing by. Congress recognized the need to address this issue and in the year 2000, passed CIPA. President Clinton then signed it into law and CIPA went into effect on April 20, 2001.
While Congress did not have the authority to outright require web filtering of all computers contained within libraries, they were able to mandate these compliances by tying CIPA to the following:
CIPA, along with its sister legislation, the Neighbourhood Internet Protection Act NCIPA required schools and libraries that received federal funding for their internet services to adopt an Internet Safety Policy. The policy was to incorporate some type of filtering technology to block all images and videos deemed to be child pornography or obscene. This included all computers within the organization, including those used by just the staff. CIPA also required that all multimedia deemed “harmful to minors” be blocked as well. This included sexually explicit images that lack any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors. Provisions were included for adults to be able to request that filtering is bypassed under some circumstances.
Free speech advocates did not regard CIPA as a threat and the legislation was immediately challenged in district federal court by the American Library Association, which contended that it infringed on patrons’ First Amendment rights. A three-judge panel sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that Congress had exceeded its authority in that any public library complying with CIPA regulations would be necessarily violating the First Amendment. They held that the FCC could not withhold funds on the grounds that a public library has failed to install mandatory filters on every computer. The District Court also reasoned that mandatory filtering was hardly the least intrusive way to achieve the goals of the law. They also opined that the inherent limitations in filtering technology that will always limit the feasibility of full CIPA compliance without blocking access to a substantial amount of free speech.
The case over CIPA and free speech then went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 where the initial ruling was overturned. The high court held that the use of Internet filtering does not, in fact, violate the First Amendment rights of a library’s patrons. It also does not induce libraries to violate the Constitution and is a valid exercise of Congressional spending power. They held that Congress has wide latitudes to attach conditions to the receipt of federal assistance to further its policy objectives. Following that ruling, CIPA compliance went into effect on July 1, 2004.
For many parents and administrators today, CIPA is an accepted set of compliances that schools and libraries accept and implement in order to receive federal funding. For others, the deliberation concerning filtering initiatives is still a hot topic today. They argue that what may be categorized as sexual obscene content to some, may hold literary, education or artistic value to others. Many insist that CIPA has encouraged schools and libraries to over-block content and that patrons and students are restricted from accessing constitutionally protected websites.
Today, in fact, there are some libraries throughout the U.S. that refuse federal funds in order to continue their stated exemption from CIPA. On the other hand, many parents in schools that implement one-to-one laptop initiatives openly insist that these devices be filtered to protect their children from content that they deem threatening or harmful to their children. While the debate over what and how much to filter will probably persist for eternity, CIPA and its ties to the E-Rate program is at least for now, a compliance that most organizations are willing to accept in exchange for federal dollars.
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