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Internet Cleanup Will Have To Respect Key Right

Mon., June 30, 1997, midnight

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken loudly on the Internet decency issue, we all might be a little better off if we start looking for other ways to clean up the cyberspace smut that is sure to keep coming our way.

Like other free-speech supporters, I applaud the high court’s decision not to inhibit free speech in this or any medium. But I am very aware something must be done to clean up the disgusting material to which our minors are constantly exposed.

“Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the Congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, we agree … that the statute abridges ‘freedom of speech’ protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, for the court’s 7-2 majority decision. Never mind that this was the court’s first major ruling involving a limitless global Internet. The fact that the court chose to uphold the most sacred of our Constitutional rights has to be a victory, even for those who think indecency in cyberspace is on some kind of runaway mission to hell.

The Clinton administration, principal backer of the communications decency law the court derailed, might have avoided the inevitable a year and a half ago, had it channeled its energy into practical safeguards, instead of a half-baked, feel-good measure.

All the signs against embracing the populist measure were there. The American Civil Liberties Union had opposed it, as did the vocal American Library Association and various publishing groups. These high-profile organizations were joined by a handful of the rapidly proliferating online associations.

“Essentially the Supreme Court of the United States took an idea from the 18th century, that is free speech, and said it has enduring quality, and will extend into the 21st century, because government will not be allowed to censor what’s on the Internet,” said ACLU attorney Stefan Presser.

This is the same administration that helped push through the so-called V-chip when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law. In you’ve lost track of that communications industry overhaul, the administration touted this untried, government-mandated censorship gizmo under the guise of communications decency.

But the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was billed by the administration as cyberspace’s saving grace.

“The Internet is an incredibly powerful medium for freedom of speech and freedom of expression that should be protected,” said a conciliatory Clinton, right after the high court’s decision. “But there is material on the on the Internet that is clearly inappropriate for children … We must give parents and teachers the tools they need to make the Internet safe for children.”

I’m encouraged by the president’s decision to meet with parent and children’s groups in a few days to get a fix once and for all on the cyberspace indecency problem. If all parties can put their political ideologies aside, they just might be able to pull this whole thing off and remove a universal problem.

I don’t doubt that, eventually, the on- and off-ramps to cyberspace decency will become unclogged. I hope it will be without the help of another unnecessary law.

While the president and other advocates of Internet decency no doubt have the best of intentions, tinkering with First Amendment rights, as they’ve found out, is not the right way to do it. For that, we can be thankful.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Fred Davis Washington State University

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