|A three-judge panel Friday struck down Congress' third and latest attempt to shield children from adult websites, ruling that public libraries cannot be forced to install software that blocks access to such sites.|
The federal panel unanimously found that the Children's Internet Protection Act relies on filtering programs that also block sites on politics, health, science and other topics that should not be suppressed.
``Given the crudeness of filtering technology, any technology protection measure mandated by CIPA will necessarily block access to a substantial amount of speech whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest,'' the judges wrote.
Three times since 1996, Congress has enacted laws aimed at keeping youngsters from visiting gambling or porn sites. And all three have been struck down.
The latest law, signed by President Clinton in 2000, was supposed to go into effect July 1. It would have required public libraries receiving federal technology funds to install the filters on their computers or risk losing aid. Schools and school libraries are still subject to the law.
Barbara Comstock, spokeswoman for Attorney General John Ashcroft, said the Justice Department is disappointed and may appeal to the Supreme Court.
Conservatives said the ruling ties the hands of parents trying to protect children. ``These groups are more concerned with providing access to smut than they are protecting child patrons and employees,'' said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council.
The ruling was welcomed by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had argued that the law would make it tougher for people without home computers to get information on topics such as breast cancer and homosexuality, which are sometimes accidentally blocked by the filters.
``It is certainly my hope that now that Congress has taken three strikes, it will get out of the business,'' said Stefan Presser, the ACLU's legal director in Pennsylvania.
Echoing earlier court decisions, the three-judge panel wrote that the Internet is an open public forum and that any move to exclude certain content must be narrowly tailored.
It said there are less restrictive ways than software filtering of shielding children from adult sites. It said those options include requiring parental consent before a minor is allowed to use an unfiltered computer, or requiring a parent to be present while a child surfs the Net.
The law would have allowed adults to ask that the filtering technology be turned off. But the court held that some library patrons might be embarrassed by having to ask, and some librarians may not have the technical expertise to comply with such a request.
The ruling was the latest in a string of setbacks for Congress in its attempts to shield children from adult material.
The 1996 Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The 1998 Child Online Protection Act required Web sites to collect a credit card number or other proof of age before allowing Internet users to view material deemed ``harmful to minors.'' A federal appeals court struck it down as too broad. The Supreme Court partially upheld the law in May but did not rule on its constitutionality as a whole.
In April, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of a 1996 child pornography law that would ban computer simulations of children having sex, saying it called into question legitimate educational or artistic depictions of youthful sex.
Lawmakers said they will continue to work to craft an acceptable law.
``We will go back and look at the language. We will hopefully come up with the right kind of language that will pass muster for the courts,'' said Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas. ``We have got to find a way to protect children.''