This week a new federal law prohibiting access to certain Internet material takes effect in public libraries and schools across the nation.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is designed to keep the eyes of minors off pornographic Web sites. Opponents, however, claim the new law is a violation of First Amendment rights.
CIPA requires that communities must meet to establish a policy on Internet safety. The policy must ensure that all computers with Internet access operate with a filter that prevents users from viewing obscene sites. Opponents argue that some filters screen words such as “gay” or “breast.” This could prevent people from going into gay chat rooms or doing biology research.
The law will not directly affect University libraries or other University computers.
The American Library Association, Maine Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed suit, arguing that CIPA is a violation of the First Amendment.
“It is not possible to purchase a filter that keeps off all unprotected speech or one that doesn’t keep off protected [speech],” said Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU).
The Maine Civil Liberties Union issued a statement late last month publicly expressing its strong opposition to the law. In the statement, Jay Scherma, president of the Maine Library Association said, “However well-intentioned Congress may have been in passing CIPA, it infringes profoundly on the rights of adults to information. We cannot willingly be a party to a law which could as fairly be called the Adult Internet Impediment Act.”
Sutton said not only is it an unnecessary form of censorship, it will further the “digital divide” that already exists. Her argument is that those who have the money to afford a home computer and Internet access will have rights to information that those who rely on public computers do not.
Fortunately for USM students, the University Computer Labs and Libraries will not be affected by this law. This is not to say, however, that pornographic viewing in the labs and libraries is not an issue.
Earlier in the year, a Lewiston-Auburn College student was arrested after viewing child pornography in the computer lab there. Other incidents have occurred on the Gorham and Portland campus.
J.B. Whipple, a special education major, found herself in an uncomfortable situation while using the copy machine on the third floor of Portland’s Glickman Library. An older man politely approached her and introduced himself. The man was using a nearby computer and upon his greeting Whipple noticed that there was pornographic material still on the screen. After the greeting and a handshake, the man used the bathroom for what Whipple described as a longer than normal amount of time.
“I’m not sure if this is a crime, but it creeped me out,” she said.
Later in the day, Whipple notified the USM Police. She said they informed her that unless the man was stalking or making threats there was nothing they could do. According to the USM Police, the only sites that are illegal to view are those containing child pornography.
Whipple admits that taken out of context the encounter was harmless. However, given the material being viewed online, the greeting, and extensive bathroom time, she describes it as “more than an innocent coincidence.”
“I was looking over my shoulder when I was leaving,” she said. “The next time I went to the library I looked around for him. If he was there I was going to avoid him.”
Whipple is not a traditional-aged student and noted that she “couldn’t imagine a 17-year-old in that situation.”
Stephen Bloom, the director of University Libraries, admits there have been complaints in the past.
“Nobody doubts the value of much of the information on the Internet,” he said, “We need to promote responsible use of the Internet to build an atmosphere conducive for everyone.”
Computing Services has also had complaints but has never had to remove someone from the lab. Some students have been asked to move to the back of the lab due to complaints, according to Carol Sobczak, the operations manager for the Gorham and Portland computer labs.
A complaint was made last year about a student who was allegedly masturbating in one of the labs. The complaint, however, was made to the lab staff a few days after it happened, so no action was taken. The alleged incident would have been in violation of what Sobczak refers to as the lab’s “hands-off policy.” The computer labs allow users to view whatever they please online as long as they are not subjecting it to others or violating the student conduct code.
Both Sobczak and Bloom feel strongly that students should be able to view whatever they choose to online. They said they would only hope that students who are granted the freedom of adults would act like adults in such situations.
Whipple also agrees students should have the right to view any material online but questions those who actually do it. “I think it’s a strange thing to do in a public place,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to put up with that type of discomfort.”
Staff Writer Tyler Stanley can be contacted at: [email protected]