Global Freedom of Expression

United States v. American Library Association

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    June 23, 2003
  • Outcome
    Reversed Lower Court, Law or Action Upheld
  • Case Number
    593 U.S. 194
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information, Content Regulation / Censorship
  • Tags
    Children, Content-Based Restriction, Internet

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a judgment and concluded that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) does not violate the First Amendment and therefore is a valid exercise of Congress’ spending power. CIPA prohibits federal assistance for Internet access to public libraries that do not have an Internet safety policy. Consequently, a group of public libraries filed a First Amendment civil action against the U.S. government, claiming that CIPA violated the right to free speech. The Court reasoned that Internet access in public libraries is neither a “traditional” nor a “designated” public forum. Furthermore, libraries have broad discretion in selecting material for their patrons in order to meet their function of facilitating learning and cultural enrichment. The Court also disagreed with the finding that CIPA creates a risk of blocking constitutionally protected speech on the ground that the statute allows libraries to disable their filtering software for bona fide research purposes.


Through two separate legislation, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Library Services and Technology Act, public libraries across the country were assisted with purchasing Internet at a discount price and accessing information through electronic networks. However, at the same time library users of all ages, including minors, were reported as searching for online pornography and in some cases patrons exposed others to pornographic images by leaving these images displayed on library computers or printers. While almost 17% of public libraries were reported to use filtering software to block pornography by the year 2000, Congress stepped up its effort to prevent Internet access to pornographic and violent materials by introducing CIPA. This Act provides that a library may not receive Internet-related federal assistance unless it has “a policy of Internet safety for minors that includes the operation of a technology protection measure,” capable of protecting against access to obscenity or child pornography. As an exception, the law permits libraries to disable their blocking software for bona fide research purposes.

By making federal grants conditioned on placing certain restrictive measures, CIPA’s enactment led a group of libraries, library associations, patrons, and website publishers, to sue the U.S. government and its officials responsible for administrating federal assistance programs. They alleged that CIPA’s mandate of blocking software violated their First Amendment right to free speech.

The U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that CIPA was facially unconstitutional and enjoined the government from withholding federal assistance to public libraries for the failure to comply with the law. The court viewed Internet access within a library as a “designated public forum” and CIPA’s provision on filtering software amounted to content-based restriction, triggering the First Amendment strict scrutiny standard. It held that even though the government had a compelling interest in “preventing the dissemination of obscenity, child pornography, or, in the case of minors, material harmful to minors,” the use of blocking software was not narrowly tailored to further those interests.

Subsequently, the government appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Decision Overview

There were several opinions written by the Supreme Court justices in this case. Justice Kennedy and Justice Breyer both concurred in judgment and filed separate opinions. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Gingsburg joined.

The main issue was whether libraries would violate the First Amendment right to free speech by employing blocking software as required by CIPA. At the outset, the Court held that public libraries in pursuing their traditional mission of facilitating learning and cultural enrichment “must have broad discretion to decide what material to provide to their patrons,” dismissing the notion that public libraries “seek to provide universal coverage.” [p. 204]

In applying the First Amendment’s public forum principles, the Court disagreed with lower court’s view on Internet access in public libraries, holding that such utility “is neither a traditional nor a designated public forum” for purposes scrutinizing the government’s restriction on free speech. Internet access does not amount to a public forum because it has not “immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, . . . been used for purposes of assembly, communication of thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” (citing International Soc. For Krishma Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee, 505 U.S. 627, 112 S.Ct. 2701 (1992). Internet access in a public library also fails to meet the definition of a designated public forum because to create such a forum, “the government must make an affirmative choice to open up its property for use as a public forum.” [p. 206] According to the Court, a public library “does not acquire Internet terminals in order to create a public forum for web publishers to express themselves;” instead, they merely offer this resource to “facilitate research, learning, and recreational pursuits by furnishing materials of [a] requisite and appropriate [nature].” [p. 206]

Moreover, the Court rejected the lower court’s reasoning that the operation of blocking software in libraries can prevent access to otherwise constitutionally protected speech, thereby violating the First Amendment. It took into account that CIPA permits libraries to unblock a website in order to conduct bona fide research or other lawful purposes.

Based on the above analysis, the Court concluded that as “public libraries’ use of Internet filtering software does not violate their patrons’ First Amendment right, CIPA does not induce libraries to violate the Constitution, and it is a valid exercise of Congress’ spending power.” The Court therefore reversed the district court’s ruling.

Justice Kennedy concurred and stated that if websites were not able to be unblocked at the request of library patrons, this may be the basis for a constitutional challenge. But he agreed that on a facial challenge, CIPA was constitutional.

Justice Breyer also wrote a separate concurring opinion to say that he would have utilized a heightened scrutiny standard because the act does limit public access to information. Specifically, “whether the harm to speech-related interests is disproportionate in light of both the justifications and the potential alternatives.” In Justice Breyer’s view, the government would be able to meet this test.

Justice Stevens dissented with the judgment of the Court, finding that libraries enjoy broad latitude in what information they provide to patrons, and this should not be restricted in any way by Congress. For Justice Stevens, it is inevitable for the filtering software to block some constitutionally protected information, an issue described as “overblocking.”

Justice Souter wrote a separate dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ginsburg, mostly agreeing with Justice Stevens. They further described CIPA as impermissible use of Congress’ spending power because, “the rule mandates action by recipient libraries that would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech if the libraries took that action entirely on their own.”

Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

While this opinion does allow public libraries to block access to certain websites, albeit websites with obscene materials and child pornography, the Court utilized an analysis that is consistent with its First Amendment jurisprudence by using public forum principles to determine whether CIPA was facially unconstitutional.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Ark. Ed. Television Comm’n v. Forbes, 523 U.S. 666 (1998).
  • U.S., South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203, 206 (1987)
  • U.S., National Endowment for Arts v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998)
  • U.S., Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Def. & Educ. Fund, 473 U.S. 788 (1985)
  • U.S., Int'l Soc'y for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee, 505 U.S. 672 (1992)
  • U.S., Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37 (1983)
  • U.S., Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819 (1995)
  • U.S., Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668 (1996)
  • U.S., Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972)
  • U.S., Columbia Broadcasting Sys., Inc. v. Democratic Nat'l Comm., 412 U.S. 94 (1973)
  • U.S., Warner Cable Communications, Inc., v. Niceville, 911 F.2d 634 (CA11 1990)
  • U.S., Student Govt. Assn. v. Board of Trustees of the Univ. of Mass., 868 F.2d 473 (CA1 1989)
  • U.S., Estiverne v. Louisiana State Bar Assn., 863 F.2d 371 (CA5 1989)
  • U.S., Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991)
  • U.S., Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980)
  • U.S., Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Wash., 461 U.S. 540 (1983)
  • U.S., Legal Servs. Corp. v. Velazquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001)
  • U.S., Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997)
  • U.S., Board of Ed., Island Trees Union Free School Dist. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982)
  • U.S., Ashcroft v. ACLU, 542 U.S. 656 (2004)
  • U.S., Miami Herald Publ'g Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974)
  • U.S., Bd. of Trs. of State Univ. of N.Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469 (1989)
  • U.S., Denver Area Ed. Telecomm. Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727 (1996)
  • U.S., Turner Broadcasting Sys. Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994)
  • U.S., Red Lion Broadcasting Co v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969)
  • U.S., Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557 (1980)
  • U.S., United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)
  • U.S., Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288 (1984)
  • U.S., Va. State Bd. of Pharm. v. Va. Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748 (1976)
  • U.S., Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)
  • U.S., Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc'y of N.Y., Inc. v. Vill. of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150 (2002)
  • U.S., Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957)
  • U.S., Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of N.Y., 385 U.S. 589 (1967)
  • U.S., Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 (1952)
  • U.S., Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976)
  • U.S., Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668 (1996)
  • U.S., Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963)
  • U.S., Legal Servs. Corp. v. Velazquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001)
  • U.S., Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992)
  • U.S., Bigelow v. Virginia, 421 U.S. 809 (1975)
  • U.S., Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), 114 Stat. 2763A—335

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

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