BISSEX: In Decency We Trust

In case you haven't heard, the CDA -- a piece of legislation whose ostensible aim was to protect children from dirty pictures online -- was struck down by the Supreme Court on June 26th."The CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech," the Justices said in their written opinion. "Although the Government has an interest in protecting children from potentially harmful materials...the CDA pursues that interest by suppressing a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to send and receive.... Its breadth is wholly unprecedented." In other words, bad law. The CDA's journey to the country's highest court began over a year ago, on February 8, 1996. That day President Clinton signed into law a large telecommunications reform bill containing the CDA. A coalition led by the ACLU filed suit against the law the very same day, joined later by the American Library Association and dozens of other groups. That suit ended up in a Philadelphia federal court, where in June of 1996 three judges ruled the CDA unconstitutional. The Department of Justice appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Now the Court has affirmed the Philadelphia ruling, and the CDA is history.On the Net, response to the decision was immediate and jubilant. E-mail alerts, congratulations, and pointers to the text of the decision were passed around. Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Mike Godwin called for "dancing in the streets." A celebratory rally was held in San Francisco."Criminalizing speech on the Internet that would be protected in a public park or on the airwaves is unconscionable and un-American," said Jack King, director of communications at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "There will always be persons who would like to throw another person in jail because they don't like the way he thinks, or speaks, or paints, or whatever," he said. "The CDA was more a product of that kind of thinking than it was about protecting children."Unfortunately, that point has yet to be conceded by the bill's supporters. While Net-heads and civil libertarians dance in the virtual streets, a CDA successor is surely on the way.The ruling against the CDA was so decisive, however, that any follow-up will probably have to take a different tack. Many CDA supporters are now promoting the idea of a mandatory "filtering" scheme that would allow parents to block out material unsuitable for their kids. Ironically, except for the "mandatory" part, this is the approach that CDA opponents have been suggesting all along. Why pass an unconstitutional law to protect children when tools to help parents do that -- in a much more personalized way than any law could accommodate -- are already being developed? President Clinton, having signed the bill into law himself, can hardly join in the street dance; he too is talking about other ways to accomplish the CDA's goals. In a statement made after the Court's ruling, he emphasized the need for applying existing pornography laws to the Internet -- again, something which CDA opponents advocated from the beginning. He also talked about filtering: "With the right technology and rating systems, we can help ensure that our children don't end up in the red light districts of cyberspace." If the technology he's imagining is anything like his troubled V-chip proposal for television, it won't be worth much. But we do seem to be heading in the right direction.Evidence so far suggests that the Net can be almost anything to anybody. This means that anyone should be able to block out things that they don't want to see -- or that they don't want their children to see. If we can work toward that goal, instead of trying to mandate morality at the expense of free speech, we'll all be better off. ***Sites in my SightsMinutes after the Supremes made their decision, the full text was made available online; this is one instance where the Net truly does make it easier for citizens to be more informed. CNN sure isn't going to read you the decision, so it's a good thing you can check it out yourself (www.epic.org/cda/).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingWorried about the CDA's successor? You should be. One site I'm going to be watching closely is the right-wing Family Research Council (www.frc.org), whose representatives are adamant that some form of government regulation must happen. What would you want to see in a sequel to the CDA? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).[SUGGESTED PULLQUOTE] Many CDA supporters are now promoting the idea of a mandatory "filtering" scheme. Except for the "mandatory" part, this is the approach that CDA opponents have been suggesting all along. ©1997 by Paul Bissex

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