WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court considered Wednesday how the government can protect the public from the seamy side of the Internet without muzzling free speech in public libraries.
Justices will decide before July if Congress can require public libraries to install software to filter out pornography as a condition of receiving federal money.
Paul Smith, an attorney for the American Library Association, told justices that the filters block tens of thousands of non-pornographic Web sites that include important information.
Justice Stephen Breyer said that Web surfers can ask librarians to disable filters to get to a particular site. "You can have it, you just have to go up to the front desk to get it," he said.
But Smith countered that it stigmatizes a person doing legitimate research. "You've got to go up and say 'Please turn off the porn filter.' "
The Bush administration argued that just as libraries decline to collect X-rated movies and pornographic magazines, they shouldn't have to offer access to pornography on their computers.
"Public libraries may reasonably conclude that it best furthers their missions to use a resource that is effective in keeping out pornography, even if that resource keeps out some material that is not pornographic," Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued in a court filing.
Olson said Wednesday that the court should recognize the long tradition of libraries deciding what to offer to patrons.
Librarians and civil liberties groups contend that filters are censorship, plain and simple, and that they filter out vast amount of valuable information along with the dirty pictures.
A three-judge federal panel in Pennsylvania agreed a year ago, ruling that the Children's Internet Protection Act violates the First Amendment because the filtering programs block too much nonpornographic material.
The law would affect more than 14 million people who use public library computers to do research, send and receive e-mail, and, in some cases, log onto adult sites. The law has been on hold since Congress passed it in 2000.
The law would be particularly unfair to lower income people who cannot afford their own home connections, the library group and its backers claim, and those in rural areas where Internet access may be expensive or difficult to get.
The lower court judges recommended less restrictive ways to control Internet use, such as requiring parental consent before minors are allowed to log in on an unfiltered computer or having a parent monitor a child's Web use.
Congress has passed three child protection laws since 1996, but the Supreme Court struck down the first and blocked the second from taking effect. Those dealt with regulations on Web site operators. Legislators tried a new approach with the 2000 law, arguing that Congress should be able to regulate government property.
The law governs money from two programs Congress had previously approved to help libraries take advantage of the Internet. One program helps public libraries get affordable Internet access and the other helps link libraries and buy equipment. The government spent about $107 million on those programs nationwide in the 12 months that ended in October.
About 17 percent of libraries already use filtering software on at least some of their computers, with varying degrees of success in screening out only objectionable material.
The case is United States v. American Library Association, 02-361.
On the Net: Supreme Court: www.supremecourtus.gov
American Library Association: http:www.ala.org