WASHINGTON — Elementary school was the last place Robin Johnson expected her 8-year-old son to discover the dark nature of pornography.

Yet that's exactly what happened when her son was innocently surfing the Internet from his Glen Lake Elementary School computer in Glen Arbor, Mich.

“The faster he tried to get out, the faster it went into the Web site,” Johnson told the Register. “Once it's up, the image is there. And my son won't forget it.”

After initial inaction from her school, Johnson rallied her local community with a petition to demand that no children have computers with Internet access unless they contain software to filter out pornography.

The filters have been in place for two years and no child has suffered a similar trauma since.

But now that Washington law-makers have come to the defense of mothers like Robin Johnson by passing the Children's Internet Protection Act last December, free speech activists have wasted little time in suing the federal government to overturn the law.

At a March 20 press conference in Philadelphia, representatives of the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union announced a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, which ties federal funding to a requirement that school and library computers have filtering software to block out both illegal and obscene material.

“Forcing libraries to choose between funding and censorship means millions of library users will lose — particularly those in the most poverty-stricken and geographically isolated areas of the country,” said Nancy Kranich, president of the American Library Association. “The federal government should not be subsidizing commercial filtering companies by forcing libraries to buy technology that doesn't work.”

She said tying federal funds to the mandating of filtering software would close off too much of the Internet to library patrons.

“If the same standards used in online filters were applied to a library's books the way they are to the Internet, our shelves would be practically empty,” Kranich said. “Filters work by spotting words, not by making judgments about decency.”

Misleading Arguments

But Chicago librarian Laura Morgan said her organization's leadership is intentionally trying to distract people with false claims of censorship.

“The plain fact remains that public libraries have never been in the business of providing hard-core pornography in print, not to mention illegal obscenity and child pornography,” Morgan told the Register.

“The argument that we must provide it now simply because it is available via the ‘uncontrollable’ medium we call the Internet is wrong,” she added. “Must we now add ‘X-rated bookstore’ to our list of services? Is that what our public libraries have become?”

Morgan and Johnson both came to Washington March 20 to join family advocates in a press conference to defend the law.

Chris Hansen, an attorney with the ACLU, stated that the filtering programs were simply unworkable.

“The flaws in blocking programs are not a matter of individual flaws in individual products,” said Hansen. “They are inevitable given the task and the limitations of the technology.” He claimed that the filtering software would accidentally block Web sites that are not obscene, like the Army Corps of Engineers or Disney World.

But Rep. Ernest Istook, ROkla., who sponsored the bill last year, said that it would be foolish to leave children totally unprotected because filtering software falls short of perfection.

“Just because brakes on a car don't work perfectly doesn't mean you shouldn't use breaks,” Rep. Istook told the Register.

Beside, such incidents as those described by the ACLU's Hanson are rare and easily fixable, Johnson said.

“Since we put our software in place in January of 1999, we have had two sites that are considered educational that were blocked,” she said of her son's Glen Lake Elementary School. “The first incident happened on the first day while they were still fine-tuning the software,” she said.

On the other occasion, the teacher was able to remedy the situation immediately, Johnson said. “The teacher called the tech person and told him to unblock the site. It took one minute.”

Donna Rice Hughes, author of Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, told the Register that the ACLU's comments on technology concerns are disingenuous.

“They don't believe in any filtering because they believe it's unconstitutional to prevent the distribution of pornography to anyone, even children,” she said.

ACLU and Pornography

Hughes cited Policy 4 of the ACLU which states, “The ACLU opposes any restraint on the right to create, publish or distribute materials to adults, or the right of adults to choose the materials they read or view, on the basis of obscenity, pornography or indecency.”

The organization's policy statement also states, “Laws which punish the distribution of such material to minors violate the First Amendment, and inevitably restrict the right to publish and distribute such materials to adults.”

Johnson said that organizations like the ACLU need to realize that such material is harmful to young children like her son.

“Putting children in adult situations and expecting them to act like adults is totally absurd,” she said.

But protecting her son and his classmates at Glen Lake Elementary isn't enough for the Michigan mother.

Said Johnson, “I'll be done when we have all our kids protected.”

Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.