United States v. American Library Association
Decided on Mar. 5, 2003; 539 US 194

The federally mandated use of internet-filtering software in public libraries, to prevent viewing of pornography by minors does not violate the First Amendment rights of library patrons.



A. Issues Discussed: First Amendment rights

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did Congress' enactment of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires public libraries to install software that blocks obscene images in order to receive federal assistance, violate patrons' First Amendment rights?


A. Background:

"Two forms of federal assistance help public libraries provide patrons with Internet access: discounted rates under the E-rate program and grants under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). Upon discovering that library patrons, including minors, regularly search the Internet for pornography and expose others to pornographic images by leaving them displayed on Internet terminals or printed at library printers, Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which forbids public libraries to receive federal assistance for Internet access unless they install software to block obscene or pornographic images and to prevent minors from accessing material harmful to them.

Appellees, a group of libraries, patrons, Web site publishers, and related parties, sued the Government, challenging the constitutionality of CIPA's filtering provisions. Ruling that CIPA is facially unconstitutional and enjoining the Government from withholding federal assistance for failure to comply with CIPA, the District Court held, inter alia, that Congress had exceeded its authority under the Spending Clause because any public library that complies with CIPA's conditions will necessarily violate the First Amendment; that the CIPA filtering software constitutes a content-based restriction on access to a public forum that is subject to strict scrutiny; and that, although the Government has a compelling interest in preventing the dissemination of obscenity, child pornography, or material harmful to minors, the use of software filters is not narrowly tailored to further that interest."

On appeal, the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Paul M. Smith argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief for appellees American Library Association, Inc., et al. were Theresa A. Chmara, Daniel Mach, Elliot M. Mincberg, and Lawrence S. Ottinger. Christopher A. Hansen, Ann Beeson, Steven R. Shapiro, Charles S. Sims, Stefan Presser, and David L. Sobel filed a brief for appellees Multnomah County Public Library et al.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Association of American Publishers, Inc., et al. by R. Bruce Rich, Jonathan Bloom, and John B. Morris, Jr.; for the Brennan Center for Justice by Burt Neu-borne, Laura K. Abel, and David S. Udell; for the Cleveland Public Library et al. by David W. Ogden; and for Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide et al. by Marjorie Heins.

Solicitor General Olson argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were Assistant Attorney General McCallum, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Irving L. Gornstein, Barbara L. Herwig, and Jacob M. Lewis.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Texas by Greg Abbott, Attorney General, Barry R. McBee, First Assistant Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Boyd, Deputy Attorney General, Philip A. Lionberger, Solicitor General, and Amy Warr and Ryan D. Clinton, Assistant Solicitors General; for the American Center for Law and Justice et al. by Jay Alan Sekulow, Colby M. May, Ben Bull, James M. Henderson, Joel H. Thornton, John P. Tuskey, and Laura B. Hernandez; for the American Civil Rights Union by Peter Ferrara; for Cities, Mayors, and County Commissioners by Kelly Shackelford; for the Greenville, South Carolina, Public Library et al. by Kenneth C. Bass III; for the National Law Center for Children and Families et al. by Kristina A. Bullock, Bruce A. Taylor, and Janet M. LaRue; and for Sen. Trent Lott et al. by Brian Fahling, Stephen M. Crampton, and Michael J. DePrimo.


"Because public libraries' use of Internet filtering software does not violate their patrons' First Amendment rights, CIPA does not induce libraries to violate the Constitution, and is a valid exercise of Congress' spending power. Congress has wide latitude to attach conditions to the receipt of federal assistance to further its policy objectives, but may not 'induce' the recipient 'to engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional'...

CIPA does not impose an unconstitutional condition on libraries that receive E-rate and LSTA subsidies by requiring them, as a condition on that receipt, to surrender their First Amendment right to provide the public with access to constitutionally protected speech... When the Government appropriates public funds to establish a program, it is entitled to broadly define that program's limits... the Government here is not denying a benefit to anyone, but is instead simply insisting that public funds be spent for the purpose for which they are authorized: helping public libraries fulfill their traditional role of obtaining material of requisite and appropriate quality for educational and informational purposes. Especially because public libraries have traditionally excluded pornographic material from their other collections, Congress could reasonably impose a parallel limitation on its Internet assistance programs."

The United States Supreme Court reversed the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania judgment.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as counsel for appellees, urged affirmance of the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; the Supreme Court reversed in a 3-6 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.