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Two suits challenging the constitutionality of a federal law requiring libraries that receive federal funding to use Internet filters to prevent children from seeing harmful or sexually explicit material are set to go to trial in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on March 25. “This law, if allowed to go into effect, will prevent adults and older teen-agers from being able to obtain a huge amount of public speech,” asserted Charles Sims, an attorney at New York’s Proskauer Rose. He is pro bono counsel working with the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several libraries, Internet providers and library patrons. Multnomah County Public Library v. United States of America, No. CA No. 01-CV-1322. The plaintiffs include library patrons who have sought information about health issues like breast cancer, a teen-ager who sought Internet information about lesbian issues in order to understand her sexual identity, Planned Parenthood and a Republican candidate for Congress whose Web site was blocked by an Internet filter. The suits claim that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CHIPA), a 2000 law, violates the U.S. Constitution. CHIPA requires public libraries that participate in the federal “e-rate” program and those that receive funds through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) to filter material or lose their benefits. “Computer programs cannot make distinctions between protected and unprotected speech,” Sims said. “By forcing public libraries to install such technology, CHIPA will suppress ideas and viewpoints that are constitutionally protected from reaching willing patrons.” The e-rate program requires telecommunication carriers to discount the rate they charge libraries based on the low-income populations they serve, or reimburse the money. The plaintiffs say that in 2000-2001, about 4,500 libraries and about 800 consortia were approved for e-rate funding of about $250 million. The funds given to the libraries through LSTA grants totaled $166.2 million in 1999, according to the plaintiffs. The suits claim that CHIPA violates the First Amendment because it prevents plaintiffs from communicating and accessing constitutionally protected speech. The plaintiffs also claim CHIPA imposes a prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Sims said that past U.S. Supreme Court findings that laws regulating Internet content are overly broad and infringe on free speech are relevant. “Our view is that the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in ACLU v. Reno essentially determines the outcome of this case,” he said. In the Justice Department’s answer to the complaint, the government argues that the plaintiffs fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and that their claims are not yet ripe for adjudication. The government declined to comment because the case is pending. The second suit, handled by Jenner & Block of Chicago, brings similar claims and was consolidated with the other. American Library Association v. United States of America, No. 01-CV-1303. Paul Smith of Jenner & Block’s Washington, D.C. office is litigating the case for the American Library Association.

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