SIGNIFICANCE: UNITED STATES V. AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION, INC.

Case NameUnited States v. American Library Association, Inc. 
Citation: 539 U.S. 194 (2003) 
TopicsObscenity; Indecency

In order to address the problems associated with the availability of internet pornography in public libraries, Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), under which a public library would not receive federal assistance with which to provide internet access if it did not install software to block images that constitute obscenity or child pornography. This law was prompted by the libraries’ findings that patrons of all ages regularly search for online pornography and sometimes expose others to pornographic images by leaving them displayed on the computer. CIPA allows the library to disable the filter to enable access to bona fide research or “other lawful purposes.” A group of libraries, library patrons, and web site publishers sued the United States, challenging the constitutionality of CIPA’s filtering provisions.

The Court found that Congress has wide latitude to attach conditions to the receipt of federal assistance in order to further its policy objectives. However, Congress may not induce the recipient to engage in activities that would be unconstitutional. The Court looked at whether CIPA requires libraries to engage in unconstitutional activities by looking at the role of libraries in our society: to facilitate learning and cultural enrichment and to provide resources for the interest and information of the communities served. To fulfill these missions, libraries must have broad discretion to decide what materials to provide patrons, that is, to choose those materials that would be of greatest benefit to them. They are under no obligation to provide universal access. In this context, the Court found that forum analysis and heightened judicial scrutiny were incompatible with the role of libraries and the discretion needed to fulfill their missions. Moreover, the Court found that internet access in public libraries is not a public forum because it has not historically been used for the purposes of assembly and communication among citizens. Nor is internet access in public libraries a designated public forum, as the government had not made an affirmative choice to open up its property for use as a public forum. Rather, internet access was provided to facilitate research, learning, and recreational pursuits, not to create a forum in which a diversity of views can be expressed by private speakers.

The Court further found that there is no constitutionally significant difference between the need to exercise judgment in making book collection decisions and the need to exercise some control when collecting material from the internet. Next, the Court found that the tendency of the filtering software to block access to constitutionally protected speech (which obscenity is not) is not problematic because of the ease with which patrons can ask that the software be disabled, with no explanation required of adults.

CIPA was found to reflect Congress’ decision not to subsidize any library’s decision not to install the software. The Court noted that a library is permitted to forego installation of the software, so long as it does not use federal funds to pay for internet access. Based on these findings, the Court concluded that Congress may insist that the public funds it appropriates to public libraries be used to fulfill their traditional role of obtaining material of requisite and appropriate quality for educational and informational purposes, which has never included pornographic materials. Accordingly, the Court found that the use of filtering software does not violate patrons’ First Amendment rights or induce libraries to violate the Constitution.

These materials are not intended, and should not be used, as legal advice. They necessarily contain generalizations that are not applicable in all jurisdictions or circumstances. Moreover, court decisions may be superseded by subsequent rulings, and may be subject to alternative interpretations. Corrections, clarification, and additions are welcome here.