The White House has dropped its opposition to a provision in one of the many outstanding congressional appropriations bills that will require schools and libraries receiving federal funds for computers and Internet access to automatically block material deemed to be pornographic or obscene.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and a handful of fellow lawmakers had inserted the language into the fiscal year 2001 appropriations bill funding the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. The Clinton administration, along with civil liberties groups and some conservative organizations, had opposed the provision, which would have required schools and libraries to install filtering software. Other conservative and religious groups have applauded the provision as pro-family. But the White House dropped its opposition after minor changes to the provision, including a call for the use of “technology protection measures” instead of filtering software.

“It was a very constructive exercise,” says U.S. Senate Commerce Committee staffer David Crane. “The final product is a better measure.”

Although the Clinton administration has thrown in the towel, civil liberties groups haven’t. The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups, opposes the provision as an unconstitutional infringement of First Amendment free speech rights, particularly because it’s an unlawful prior restraint of speech, according to ACLU legislative counsel Marvin Johnson.

“It’s difficult to say that we will in fact sue [to have the prospective law struck down] until we see the final language,” says Johnson. “But we’re certainly exploring those options.”

Despite the new agreement, there’s still work to be done on the Labor/HHS appropriations bill, and several other outstanding spending measures. Labor/HHS is still hung up on a dispute over a prospective new workplace ergonomics rule from the Occupational Safety and Health

Administration. The Clinton administration wants OSHA to issue a new rule this year, but some congressional lawmakers are seeking a delay until next year, when a new administration is in office. That dispute is just one of several mostly non-Internet-related fights that have kept Congress in session for weeks after its scheduled adjournment.

Two previous laws aimed at shielding children from adult online content have already suffered defeats in federal courts. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which aimed to block “indecent speech.” Earlier this year, a federal appellate court upheld a preliminary injunction against the Child Online Protection Act, which sought to shield children from content “harmful to minors.” In both cases, courts have held that the legislative language was overbroad and hard to define.



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