They've landed there by way of excoriating the Children's Internet Protection Act, which the Supreme Court yesterday upheld 6-3. This law requires obscenity-blocking filters on computers in public libraries where the computers are paid for with federal grants or the Internet access is subsidized by Washington. Because the blocking technology is imperfect--it screens out some unobjectionable material, and lets in some that's unsuitable for minors--the ACLU and the American Library Association call the filters "censorware," and the three most liberal members of the Court deem the law unconstitutional on its face.
Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg are unmoved by the fact that the Children's Internet Protection Act leaves librarians free to turn the filters off for any adult patron upon request. In addition, "libraries have the capacity to permanently unblock any erroneously blocked site," writes Chief Justice Rehnquist for the Court. Not to mention the fact that any library that wants to can provide unfiltered access on its own dime.
Obliviously, the dissenters see only an "obnoxious abridgement of speech," in Stevens' words. At the thought of "content-based blocking," Justice Souter, joined by Ginsburg, "smells a rat."
Strange: Like the majority, the dissenters say they appreciate the need to protect young library users from the worst of the Internet. And surely they must; two of them are parents, and all of them presumably know what the Internet is like. Also like the majority, they admit that public libraries have always been free to exclude print pornography from their shelves, as most of them have. Yet these practical realities fade away beside the dissenters' First Amendment absolutism, and so they balk.
It is reasonable to hope and assume that Internet blocking technology will be refined in coming years. In the meantime, to find in the Constitution a bar to government's using the existing, technology to promote children's proper use of the Internet--and not their access to smut--is downright perverse.
It calls to mind the late Michael Kelly's deadly dart, that sometimes it seems as if "liberalism's animating impulse is to marginalize itself and then to enjoy its own company. And to make itself as unattractive to as many as possible: If it were a person, it would pierce its tongue."
Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.