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The ACLU and public porn

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 19, 2002
(Issue 2016, Computer History)

I was 17, I think, and a senior in high school in suburban Dayton, Ohio. One weekend, some friends and I drove down to Cincinnati for the day. I think we were going to a music store down there, although there were plenty of good ones in Dayton. Mostly, I think, we liked the idea of a "road trip" – of being 50 miles from home without our parents around.

We ended up at a magazine store in downtown Cincinnati, and noticed something we didn't have in Dayton: a row with what might politely be called "adult" publications.

Well, being 17 and having a blood hormone level somewhere north of the stratosphere, we were drawn to those magazines and their color covers of jiggling flesh like a bear to honey.

But we hadn't done so much as reach for Naked Cheerleaders Today or some such magazine when a very loud, very deep voice, boomed from the register, "You boys better be 18 if you're in that aisle.

We weren't – 18 or in that aisle any more.

The point was, while those materials were legal to sell and own for adults, we had no business trying to look through them – and the owner of the store let us know that.

Public information?

A similar situation is going on now in our public libraries – where Internet terminals are occasionally being used to view jiggling flesh and other less-than-savory materials.

About a year and a half ago, in response to concerns about folks using public libraries' Internet terminals for ogling photos of naked naughty parts, Congress passed a law that quite reasonably requires any public library requesting federal funds to install filtering software on its Internet terminals.

Almost immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union – which can smell out a public relations opportunity faster than a 17-year-old can find a dirty magazine – filed suit, claiming that this Children's Internet Protection Act violates the free speech rights outlined in the First Amendment.

According to the ACLU, the government is prohibited by the First Amendment from trying to control what citizens view online. And since public libraries are some citizens' only access online, this prohibition against viewing sexually graphic materials is illegal.

It is, of course, an idiotic argument – one whose only redeeming value is its fund-raising prowess for groups like the ACLU, whose lawyers depend on alarmist direct-mail to keep them in luxury cars and exclusive ZIP codes.

(Lest you think the ACLU is a bunch of idealistic do-gooders, know this: Whenever they win one of their lawsuits against the government – you know, the ones where they represent some poor schlepp "for free" – they get to file a reimbursement claim. They bill just as lucratively as other attorneys, and the taxpayers – that's you and I – pick up their exorbitant tab.)

In an unusual move, it has been agreed that no matter which way the federal district court hearing the case rules, that decision will go to the Supreme Court for immediate appeal.

Hopefully, the Supreme Court will come down on the side of common sense. While they struck down earlier Congressional attempts to control smut online as overly vague, those laws were far different in that they attempted to ban all sexually explicit materials online – even those sent in private e-mail between consenting adults or those behind password-protected gateways intended to keep out minors (much the same role as that large gentleman in Cincinnati).

This latest effort by Congress is a fair attempt that balances individuals' rights to still view these materials in the privacy of their homes against the public's equally reasonable expectation that they can send their kids to the public library and not worry about them being exposed to either graphic materials or perverts viewing graphic materials.

Besides, the ACLU's argument is deeply flawed on several fronts:

First off, no one has a "right" to Internet access at the public library, any more than you have the "right" to force the library to purchase every book you might want to read. It is a public resource – a shared resource – and reasonable limitations on library usage surely include the expectation that you aren't sitting there viewing people having sex.

And the ACLU is factually wrong on another count: the public library is not the only access point for the Internet for those without home service. There are many private outlets now renting Internet access by the hour or minute: copy shops, Internet cafes, coffee houses, airports. There is almost no city or town these days that doesn't have at least a couple of Internet terminals. If these private outfits want to let you watch porn, that's up to them. The fact that sexually explicit materials are legal doesn't mean we taxpayers are obliged to provide them to everyone. You have a legal right to own a gun – it doesn't mean the government has to buy it for you.

Nor do local libraries have a right to federal funding. If you don't like the filtering rule, don't take the money. The idea that you have some inherent right to money with no strings attached is one increasingly popular in the chic Left, but is one supported by neither law nor intelligence.

Finally, the ACLU's argument that since filters are imperfect they are unconstitutional is pure lunacy. While filters are far from perfect, they are a useful tool for controlling a library environment. There are many filtering products from which to select, and nearly all let administrators set preferences to suit local needs.

Still, as I alluded to earlier, I doubt this has much to do with freedom or the Constitution. It is simply more grist for the ACLU's mighty fund-raising machine, which can now send out shrill fund-raising letters warning that our right to read is under attack.

It isn't, of course – and it will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court sees through the smokescreen.