Even after President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act into law Feb. 8 as part of the extensive telecommunications bill, many considered the legislation already dead — and for all the right reasons. The American Civil Liberties Union decried the act as “an attack on the freedom of expression,” and three judges in the U.S. District Court of eastern Pennsylvania agreed, declaring the act unconstitutional early last month. Although we are pleased the First Amendment has jumped another hurdle, we fear the fight for control of the Internet has only just begun.
The decency act made the electronic transmission of “obscene or indecent” material to anyone under 18 a federal crime, punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of $250,000. But the vague concept of “indecent” proved the act’s undoing. Fortunately, the judges saw through the congressional paranoia and realized that censorship of the Internet — more like a telephone than a television — would be an affront to the right of free speech.
In a 175-page ruling, the judges said communication on the Internet “can be unfiltered, unpolished and unconventional. … But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a voice.” The Internet, they said, “may fairly be regarded as a never-ending, worldwide conversation. The government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation.” The debate, however, isn’t over yet.
The Justice Department is appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling in the case is certain, considering the court’s historically close attention to constitutional rulings in lower courts. Moreover, some pundits say the appellate decision may contradict the Supreme Court’s 1978 Pacifica ruling, which banned indecent programming in the broadcast media.
But the Internet is not a broadcast medium in the sense of television and radio, around which Pacifica centered; it is a method of communication much like the telephone, only with graphics, pictures and written text. If, for example, an individual wants to discuss a certain topic or view pictures of a certain event, he or she must “dial” the right number. The decency act could have prevented that access, an action that amounts to censorship in its purest form.
We understand the desire to protect impressionable children from the admittedly dark side of the Internet. It’s true that newsgroups are chock-full of lurid pornography that remains illegal in the United States, much of which can be accessed by computer-smart kids. But we believe the limitations of the Internet should begin and end in the home. The responsibility to protect children lies solely with parents and guardians, not legislators.
In an attempt to gain some much-needed votes, the Clinton administration is sure to continue its move to the right and support the act. But the Supreme Court must recognize, if not embrace, the Internet’s unique position in society. In a nation where freedom of expression is constantly under the gun, the Internet remains a strong bastion of democratic principles and must be protected at all costs.