Decency Act ruling fuels censorship debate

Michelle Kibiger

Supporters of First Amendment protection for the Internet, both at the University and across the country, won a victory June 12 when a federal district court in Philadelphia struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1995.
The act, signed into law by President Clinton as part of the Tele-communications Act of 1996, would make it illegal to distribute any “indecent” or “patently offensive” words or images on the Internet. Penalties include jail time and up to $250,000 in fines.
The three-judge panel unanimously ruled the law was too vague and did not adequately define any of the elements it banned.
Many University students and professors agreed with the plaintiffs and applauded the justices for their decision.
“The judges did everything that Congress didn’t do,” said University journalism professor Donald Gillmor. “They studied the Internet.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations filed suit against the act Feb. 8, a day after the president signed it into law. The plaintiffs claimed that the act drastically curtailed the highly democratic nature of cyberspace.
As soon as the case was decided, the decision, running more than 200 pages, was posted on the Internet. It includes an extensive section detailing what the Internet is, who it affects and how people obtain access to the Internet.
“Not only was it a nicely crafted opinion, but it also hit some of the serious issues about what the ‘Net is,” said Genelle Belmas, a doctoral student and research fellow at the University’s Silha Center for media ethics and law.
The opinion emphasizes that the Internet serves academics as an invaluable international research tool. The justices also explained that the Internet is primarily used for research by universities, individuals and corporations.
Sen. Slade Gordon, R-Wash., and Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., authors of the Communications Decency Act, intended to help parents protect children from exposure to what may be considered adult material, such as pornography.
The ACLU, the primary plaintiff in the suit, acknowledged the concerns of parents but said those concerns are not more important than upholding the First Amendment.
“The government kept saying that this was a crisis that required harsher censorship in the online world than in any other communications medium,” said Mike Godwin, counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “In fact, we showed that it’s possible to promote both freedom of speech and family values — that the two goals don’t oppose each other.”
In its opinion, the court stated that although parents have the right to keep their children from certain materials, various online services provide filters to assist parents. Also, software programs are available to help parents block unwanted sites.
On campus, Orlando Ochoada, a member of Students for Family Values, said he supported the concept of protecting minors from indecent material but added that the government should avoid censorship.
“I don’t think necessarily anything is wrong with keeping minors from having access” to offensive materials, Ochoada said. “If in fact what (the government is) doing prevents minors and others who are not emotionally mature enough to handle that subject matter, I’m in favor of it. I don’t (favor it) if the act is crafted so that it could be used improperly.”
Parent and University student Jodi Bland said she favors the act, but only because not all parents take responsibility for their children. She said that the First Amendment does not abolish responsibility.
“I don’t feel (regulating the Internet) is the government’s business,” said Bland. “But as long as (parental) responsibility is lacking, then we need government intervention.”
Gillmor said courts’ inability to define “indecent” or “offensive” made last week’s decision completely and totally predictable.
Gillmor said he thinks the case will be appealed, but doubts that the Supreme Court will hear the case.