The decision adds latitude for shielding kids from porn, but curbs some speech.
Congress may use its spending power to encourage public libraries to install filtering software on their computers to protect children from pornography on the Internet.
In a major 6-to-3 decision Monday, the US Supreme Court upheld a federal law that conditioned the receipt of federal aid to libraries upon the use of such content-blocking software.
Free-speech advocates had attacked the law as an unconstitutional form of government censorship. But the court disagreed, ruling instead that the law, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), did not violate the First Amendment rights of library patrons. In addition, the justices said the law was a valid use by Congress of its spending power.
"Most libraries already exclude pornography from their print collections because they deem it inappropriate for inclusion," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority. He says the court has not challenged those decisions by librarians on First Amendment grounds. "It would make little sense to treat libraries' judgments to block online pornography any differently, when these judgments are made for just the same reason."
The decision marks the first time in three cases that the nation's highest court has upheld an attempt by Congress to regulate Internet access to protect children. In recent years, the high court has invalidated the 1996 Communications Decency Act and blocked enforcement of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act.
In upholding CIPA, the court has carved out a constitutionally permissive means of protecting children despite warnings by free-speech advocates that core First Amendment principles were at stake.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said it should be up to local librarians to decide how or whether to use Internet filters. "Rather than allowing local decisionmakers to tailor their responses to local problems, the CIPA operates as a blunt nationwide restraint on adult access to an enormous amount of valuable information." He also writes, "The abridgment of speech is equally obnoxious whether a rule like this one is enforced by a threat of penalties or by a threat to withhold a benefit."