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Wisconsin lawmaker pushes school Internet-filtering bill

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

All Wisconsin schools and colleges — public or private — and public libraries that receive funds under a state telecommunications access program would have to filter Internet access under a bill before the Wisconsin Assembly.

Under state law, numerous "educational agencies" — including school districts, private schools, cooperative educational service agencies, technical college districts, private colleges and public library boards — receive funds for Internet access from the program TEACH.

Assembly Bill 266 would provide that educational agencies could not receive grants under TEACH unless they install filtering software on all computers and block access to material that the educational agency determines to be "inappropriate for minors."

The measure would not apply to the University of Wisconsin because the university does not receive funds from TEACH.

The bill also would require school boards to install blocking software whether or not they receive grants under the program.

The bill, which was introduced by state Rep. Mike Huebsch on April 9, has been referred to the Assembly's Committee on Information Policy.

"The main thrust of this bill is to prevent teachers from having to police the Internet," Huebsch said. "The Internet is an important educational tool and we want teachers to be able to utilize this informational tool and not have to spend all their time policing the Internet.

"Taxpayers have no desire to have children accessing pornography on the Internet," he said.

However, Chris Ahmuty, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, says the bill violates First Amendment free-speech rights. Ahmuty stated in a news release: "AB266 is a misguided attempt to protect children that is overbroad, deceptive and violates the right to free speech in cyberspace for students, library patrons and providers. Software filters will take professional discretion away from educators and librarians."

Ahmuty criticized the bill for requiring technical colleges and public libraries, where many of the Internet users are adults, to install filtering software to receive the educational grants. "This bill is overbroad because it would apply at places like technical colleges where the majority of computer users will be over 18," he said.

"However well-intentioned the sponsors may be, they are doing something that won't protect children and will violate the free-speech rights of students, library patrons and Web site providers," he said.

Ahmuty also criticized the use of the term "inappropriate," which he said makes the bill far worse than proposed federal legislation offered by U.S. Sen. John McCain, which uses the standard of "harmful to minors."

When questioned about the bill's application to institutions where most of the computer users would be adults, Huebsch responded "we will amend that."

"Adults do have greater free-speech rights than minors," Huebsch said. "The purpose of the bill is to protect children, not restrict the rights of adults."

Ahmuty says the bill, however, does restrict the rights of adults. "The ACLU of Wisconsin is organizing a broad-based coalition against this bill," he said.

Huebsch said that the committee would hold a hearing on the bill on April 30 and said he expected the bill to reach the Assembly floor sometime in May or June.

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