New York Times Editorial
November 12, 2000

A Misguided Pornography Bill

A handful of Republican lawmakers led by Senator John McCain of Arizona have been intent on attaching an ill-conceived rider to one of the stalled spending bills that Congress will take up when it returns for its post-election session. The rider would require public schools and libraries receiving federal funds for Internet connections to install computer software that would block access to obscene and other inappropriate Web sites. The White House, which has curiously lost its resolve on this issue, should refuse to approve any bill that contains this rider.

At first glance, the rider is simply a well- meaning attempt to prevent children from getting access to Internet pornography. But software designed to filter out pornography sites can be notoriously indiscriminate in blocking all sorts of Web sites. Some filters routinely block access to constitutionally protected sites sponsored by women's health groups, human rights groups and even conservative religious organizations merely because those sites happen to contain words like "breast" or "sex" that the software programmer considers sensitive. Yet, perversely, some filters are so rudimentary that they allow clever porn sites to slip through.

Mandating the use of ineffective software in public schools and libraries is, on its face, absurd. It is also very likely unconstitutional. A federal court has already ruled that this type of Internet blocking on public library computers in Loudoun County, Va., violates First Amendment principles. If the rider becomes law, it will not be long before civil liberties groups mount an array of constitutional challenges.

A much more sensible approach to protecting children, while preserving access to constitutionally protected materials, is for schools and libraries to monitor student use of the Internet while teaching each student how to avoid inappropriate sites. Relying on imperfect computer software that blocks access to huge amounts of information is no solution at all.

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