New Arizona Law: Schools and Libraries Comply or Lose Funding

Public schools and libraries in Arizona will be at the mercy of a new law, effective August 1, that requires the institutions to block “obscene” materials on the internet or they will lose 10 percent of their funding, according to articles posted on the First Amendment Center and The Arizona Republic websites.

From The Arizona Republic article, by Lindsey Erdody:

House Bill 2712 specifies the types of material the schools and libraries must block and includes a tough penalty — the state can withhold 10 percent of its funding if the school or library doesn’t comply.

The new law has several requirements: Schools and libraries must filter and block questionable websites from minors and the general public; they must establish a policy to enforce the ban on these materials; and they have to make the rules available to the public.

Rep. Steve Court, R-Mesa, who sponsored the bill, said he pushed for the funding penalties to give schools and libraries more incentive to have strict filters in place. If a school or library is notified that it is not in compliance, it has 60 days to change the policy. After that, the state can withhold up to 10 percent of funding until the entity resolves the problem.

According to Erdody’s article, previous laws required the institutions only to block materials that were “harmful to minors.” In the article, Representative Court said that the new law narrows the legal definitions by blocking “visual depictions that are child pornography, harmful to minors or obscene.”

This new law is an adoption of the failed and embattled Child Online Protection Act and Children’s Internet Protection Act (click here for an ALA article on explanations and histories of CPPA, CIPA and COPA), that were also intended to protect minors from obscene materials online.

CBLDF was one of the many organizations that opposed COPA, which was defeated in 2004 with Ashroft v. ACLU II. The acts were rejected by the Supreme Court because their contents were too broad and vague, but Representative Court said that the new Arizona law “. . .just makes it a little more clear and a little more stringent.”

Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, writes:

Not exactly more clear. Like other efforts at legislating Internet access, this statute is muddled and shows no understanding of the difference between obscenity, which is not protected by the First Amendment, and adult-oriented material, which is.

No one wants to see children stumble across sexually explicit content on the Internet, and our schools and public libraries have a duty to protect them. On the other hand, a filter that blocks content that could be “harmful to minors” will inevitably bar content that is perfectly fine for adults — and the blocking is largely done by third-party software vendors and not librarians.

The Arizona law provides that adults who want access to filtered material can ask that the filter be lifted only “for research purposes.” Let’s play that out. A website offering practical advice on family planning might be considered potentially harmful to a nine-year-old and could be blocked. But should a citizen really have to go to a public library and assert that he or she is researching the human reproductive system to access the site?

Sexually oriented content is protected under the Constitution. Obscenity — legally defined as sexual content that has no serious artistic, literary, scientific or political value and that violates contemporary community standards — is not protected under the First Amendment, but it’s a very narrow category. The state has every right to ban obscenity and child pornography. But the overwhelming majority of adult-themed content is not legally obscene.

Keeping children from exposure to any form of legally obscene materials is not the underlying problem of said laws, policies and filters. The problem arises in the restrictive and over-reaching nature of these prescribed mechanisms.

A CBLDF article I wrote illustrates the failure of these laws and filters to protect free speech because they inevitably block legal and non-obscene materials. In the article I recall being denied access to articles about RPG censorship because the state-mandated library internet filter was set off by words in the articles, such as “erotic,” even though the articles did not contain obscene materials. The article also elaborates on Pennsylvania’s (where I am a resident) own adaptation of CIPA and the problems that arise. The Pennsylvania law’s implementation and penalties are similar to Arizona’s new law.

Not only is Arizona’s new law in discordance with sentiments from the ALA, ACLU and the Supreme Court, it adds to the bandwagon of states to enact such severe restrictive access laws. These laws, according to opponents (including the organizations and courts previously mentioned and often CBLDF), more often encroach on free speech.

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Justin Brown is a journalism graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is currently enrolled in Point Park’s journalism and mass communications graduate program.