United States v. American Library Ass'n

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United States v. American Library Association
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 5, 2003
Decided June 23, 2003
Full case nameUnited States, et al., Appellants v. American Library Association, Inc., et al.
Citations539 U.S. 194 (more)
123 S. Ct. 2297; 156 L. Ed. 2d 221
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
Prior201 F. Supp. 2d 401 (E.D. Pa. 2002); probable jurisdiction noted, 537 U.S. 1017 (2002).
Congress has the authority to require libraries to censor internet content in order to receive federal funding.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
MajorityRehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas
DissentSouter, joined by Ginsburg

United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003), was a decision in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the United States Congress has the authority to require public schools and libraries receiving E-Rate discounts to install web filtering software as a condition of receiving federal funding. In a plurality opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that: 1.) public libraries' use of Internet filtering software does not violate their patrons' First Amendment free speech rights; 2.) The Children's Internet Protection Act is not unconstitutional.[1]


The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was passed by Congress in 2000. CIPA required that in order to qualify for federal assistance for Internet access, public libraries must install software that blocked obscene or pornographic images, or other material which could be dangerous for minor children.[2] The American Library Association, a group of public libraries, library associations, library patrons, and website publishers challenged this law. They claimed that it improperly required them to restrict the First Amendment rights of library patrons. The Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, ruled on whether public libraries' use of Internet filtering software violated patrons' First Amendment rights.

Background of CIPA[edit]

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is a federal law enacted by Congress to address concerns about access to offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers. CIPA imposed certain types of requirements on any school or library that receives funding under the E-rate program or Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants, which subsidize internet technology and connectivity for schools and libraries. In early 2001, the FCC issued rules implementing CIPA.[3]


In a plurality decision written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Supreme Court reversed the District Court's decision, and upheld the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires public libraries receiving federal funds related to Internet access to install filtering devices on computer terminals that block a user's ability to view on-line pornography, as well as other obscenities that may be harmful to children. The Court reversed the judgment of the District Court that this content-based restriction on Internet speech was invalid on its face because available filtering devices "overblock" some constitutionally protected material, and thus do not meet the First Amendment's narrow tailoring requirement. The Supreme Court held that the public forum principles on which the district court relied are "out of place in the context of this case" and that Internet access in public libraries "is neither a 'traditional' nor a 'designated' public forum." A public forum is created when the government makes an affirmative choice to open up an area for use as a public forum.[4] Libraries, however, do not acquire Internet terminals in order to "create a public forum for Web publishers to express themselves, any more than it collects books in order to provide a public forum for the authors of books to speak." The Court explained that the Internet is simply "another method for making information available in a school or library . . . [and is] no more than a technological extension of the book stack."

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Both noted that CIPA imposed a comparatively small burden on library Internet users that was not disproportionate to any potential speech-related harm, especially in light of the libraries' ability to unblock sites.


John Paul Stevens dissented, submitting that CIPA unlawfully conditioned receipt of government funding on the restriction of First Amendment rights because CIPA denied the libraries any discretion in judging the merits of the blocked websites.

Justice David H. Souter also dissented. In his dissent, he acknowledged the legitimacy of the government's interest in protecting children from obscene material. However, he did not believe CIPA was narrowly tailored to achieve this legitimate interest. He focused on the language of CIPA which said the library "may" unblock the filters for "bona fide research or other lawful purposes", which imposed eligibility on unblocking and left it up to the librarians discretion. He believed this would prevent adults from accessing lawful and constitutionally protected speech. He suggested that to prevent this, children could be restricted to blocked terminals, leaving unblocked terminals available to adults. He believed CIPA to be an unconstitutional "content-based restriction on communication of material in the library's control that an adult could otherwise lawfully see" rising to the level of censorship. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Souter's dissent.

Reaction and Later Cases[edit]

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that it was "disappointed" that the Supreme Court held that "Congress can force public libraries to install blocking software on library Internet terminals, but noted that the ruling minimized the law's impact on adults, who can insist that the software be disabled".[5]

"'Although we are disappointed that the Court upheld a law that is unequivocally a form of censorship, there is a silver lining. The Justices essentially rewrote the law to minimize its effect on adult library patrons,' said Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, which had challenged the law on behalf of libraries, adult and minor library patrons, and Internet content providers."[5]

On January 26, 2016, the Wisconsin 3rd District Court of Appeals determined in Wisconsin v. David J. Reidinger did not have a First Amendment right to view pornography in a public library.[6] Following a bench trial, Reidinger was found to have violated WIS. ADMIN. CODE § UWS 18.11(2) and was fined $295. A student supervisor at the McIntyre Library on the UWEC campus, testified she received a complaint from a student at 10:40 p.m. on December 14, 2014. The complaining student testified that she and her roommate were working on homework at the library when they noticed Reidinger watching pornographic material on the computer next to them. Two university police officers responded to the complaint. The court upheld his conviction of disorderly conduct.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003).
  2. ^ http://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/constitutional-law/constitutional-law-keyed-to-cohen/protection-of-penumbral-first-amendment-rights/united-states-v-american-library-association-inc/
  3. ^ http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.html
  4. ^ http://www.educationupdate.com/archives/2003/oct03/issue/spot_internetcensor.html
  5. ^ a b https://www.aclu.org/privacy/speech/14930prs20030623.html
  6. ^ "Library Porn Citation Upheld In Wisconsin". Retrieved 2016-01-31.
  7. ^ "David J. Reidinger v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System". www.wicourts.gov. Retrieved 2016-01-31.

Further reading[edit]

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