For Parents, Cyberporn too High a Price for Free Speech

AS THE world of high-technology moves from the boardroom to the living room, more and more American families have personal computers at home. Parents and their children use computers for everything from budgeting to term papers, as computer software and compact discs make information available at the push of a button.

As the use of home computers has increased, so has the number of people with access to the so-called “information super-highway,” also called the Internet or the World-Wide Web. Easy access to the largely unregulated Internet concerns many pro-family groups, who worry that children could be exposed to indecent or pornographic material without the knowledge of their parents. The introduction of “Web TV” has made access to the Internet still more convenient.

For this reason, pro-family leaders applauded last year's congressional efforts to regulate indecent material on the Internet. Without hearings and with little fanfare, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996 as part of a larger telecommunications reform hill. The law makes it a crime to display indecent material on any interactive computer network “in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age.” The bill defines indecent material as anything that “depicts or defines, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” A violation of the Communications Decency Act carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Pro-family groups pushed hard for such tough provisions. In a letter to congressional leaders, a host of conservative organizations called for strong language in the bill as well as strict penalties for both those who place indecent materials on the Internet as well as so-called on-line services (which provide Internet access to home computers) who allow their services to “search” for these indecent materials on the World-Wide Web. “Thousands of individuals both in this country and abroad are regularly placing obscenity and indecency on the Internet,” the groups wrote. “While there is no perfect solution to the problem of computer pornography, Congress could not hope to solve this problem by holding liable only some who are responsible for the problem.” The letter was signed by former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese as well as the leaders of the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, Traditional Values Coalition, the American Center for Law and Justice, Free Congress Foundation, Morality in Media, and the National Family Legal Foundation.

“We must have closer regulation of the Internet,” said Kristi Hamrick of the Family Research Council, another group that has been active in the battle for cyberspace. “The pornography people are very clever in the way they set up their Internet sites. They set them up so that very common search words allow a user to pull up pornographic material.” She mentioned that using animal search words will allow a Internet user to access a site for bestiality, as one example. “You can do things on the Internet today that would be completely illegal in any other context,” she continued. “With today's technology, you can literally e-mail pornography to kids.”

Soon after the law passed the Congress and was signed by President Clinton, it was challenged by a host of free-speech groups in court. In June of 1996, a three-judge federal court in Philadelphia handed these groups a tremendous legal victory when it blocked enforcement of the Communications Decency Act. The court ruled that the new law was unconstitutionally vague as well as too broad. While noting that the government has long regulated television and radio, the court found “significant differences between Internet communications and communications received by television and radio.” The judges concluded that “receipt of information on the Internet requires a series of affirmative steps more deliberate and directed than merely turning a dial.”

The U.S. Justice Department defended the new statute, claiming that the law was justified by the government's overriding interest to protect the welfare of children. This is the same reasoning, for example, that the government is using in its efforts to restrict tobacco advertising, another effort that many claim violates First Amendment free speech protections.

On Dec. 6, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and both sides are pleased that the issue will be settled this year conclusively.

“The court will realize that in the Internet, they have a new paradigm,” Jerry Berman, the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), told The New York Times. “This is the real bridge to the 21st century.”

CDT is one of the leaders in the effort to protect free speech on the Internet, and it is one of the groups that brought the lawsuit in Philadelphia. The others include on-line service providers like America Online, Microsoft, Compuserve and Prodigy, users of on-line information like the American Library Association, trade groups such as the American Publishing Associations as well as free speech and civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

For opponents of the Communications Decency Act like CDT's Berman, any restrictions on free speech are potential threats to other freedoms. While such danger does not exist in the United States, foreign governments, he said, might clamp down on the political opposition making use of the Internet to get its message out. It is crucial, said Berman, that the Internet remain accessible to all, not just the rich and powerful. Restrictions on content, however distasteful and reprehensible, as in the case of cyberporn, he added, will set a dangerous precedent.

Pro-family groups are surely in for a tough battle, since the opposition is using the very medium under discussion—the Internet—to rally its troops. In order to organize the millions of Internet Users, CDT has formed the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition. Utilizing its web site, CDT has become a virtual clearinghouse for information on legal challenges to the Communications Decency Act. Thus far, more than 33,000 on-line users have joined the coalition, which is dedicated to fighting all efforts to restrict free speech on the Internet. CDT has an entire package of on-line materials available about how citizens can get involved—everything from tips about writing, calling, and meeting with legislators and their staff to a history of the issue to detailed analyses of legislation. The group has also started to cultivate relationships with congressmen and senators who share its views on free speech issues, and have helped form the Congressional Internet Caucus.

Pro-family groups also are looking forward to the Supreme Court hearing the case on the Communications Decency Act. Cathy Cleaver, director of legal studies for the Family Research Council takes a broad view in arguing for stricter scrutiny of the Internet. “We have long embraced the principle that those who peddle harmful material have the obligation to keep the material from children. Outside cyberspace, laws restrain people from displaying sexually explicit images in public places and from selling porn magazines to children. Cyberspace is a work in progress. We should not squander the opportunity to examine and appreciate a world where pornography knows no bounds. It would be like leaving a loaded gun in the playground.”

If the Supreme Court does strike down the Communications Decency Act, the pro-family movement is ready to respond. Small groups of legislators are meeting on Capitol Hill to begin to fashion new Internet regulations that will more closely adhere to the strictures imposed by the courts.

The legal and legislative battle over “cyberporn” has begun, and as more Americans gain access to the to the Internet, the stakes get higher for pro-family and free speech groups alike. Advocates may find that the ruling by the Supreme Court, whichever way it goes, may be only the beginning.

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.