NCAC Censorship News Issue #68:

The most significant First
Amendment decision in recent history was the Supreme Court ruling in Reno v.
—which held that communications over the Internet deserve the highest
level of constitutional protection. In overturning the Communications Decency
Act, the Court ruled that attempts to regulate the Internet to prevent children’s
access to “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials “places an unacceptably
heavy burden on protected speech.”

In spite of the Court’s
broad affirmation for free expression online, the wars about Internet content
still rage. People don’t seem to get the Court’s message that electronic expression
merits the same protection as expression in print.

Restrictive legislation
is again being drafted in Congress. The Administration, in an effort to accomplish
indirectly what the courts won’t allow it to do directly, gathered together industry
leaders and representatives of national organizations for an Internet Online Summit
in Washington in early December.

Some participating organizations,
including NCAC, question the basic premises of the Summit—that free speech on
the Internet poses unprecedented and unreasonable risks to children, and that
filtering devices “voluntarily” developed by the industry and content-rating systems
will not threaten intellectual inquiry on the Internet. NCAC participated in the
Summit but also joined the Internet Free Expression Alliance to advocate for policies
and practices consistent with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and

NCAC Executive Director Joan
E. Bertin was a panelist at the Summit, cautioning against censorship. Bertin
pointed out that,

“Technological change and its social consequences have invariably
engendered anxiety and a fear of free expression that values conformity and authoritarianism
over freedom. For example, in 1671, the Governor of the Colony of Virginia, said,
‘I thank God we have not free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not these
hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience and heresy, and sects into
the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against government. God keep
us from both.’
“Adherence to core principles, such as those embodied by the First Amendment,
will help to avoid short-sighted responses to the challenges posed by today’s
evolving technologies.
“Children, like adults, receive enormous intellectual and other benefits from
living in a free society. Children are not harmed by freedom of expression, but
by unlawful acts. People who commit those acts, not protected speech, should be
the focus of efforts to protect children.”

In commenting on the agenda
of the Summit, NCAC President Wendy Kaminer noted that, “Parents are always encouraged
to guide and supervise their own children, on the Internet and elsewhere. But
parents have widely divergent viewpoints about what and how their kids should
learn, and children within the same age group have different sensibilities and
levels of sophistication.” In addition, Kaminer noted, “definitions of harmful
speech are subjective and quite political. We already have too many examples of
filtering devices that screen out educational material and controversial political
speech, including discussions of censorship, and we’ve seen how clumsy and inaccurate
rating systems can be. Parents are entitled to know the limitations of these approaches.”

Examples of the broad sweep
of filtering devices abound: from the blocking of one page of NCAC’s website for
its description of our Working Group on Women, Censorship and “Pornography,” to
the blocking of NOW’s web site for information about alternative lifestyles.

A study of filters applied
to web sites of interest to children by the Electronic Privacy Information Center
compared a traditional search engine with a so-called family-friendly search engine.
The study revealed that the “family-friendly” software blocked more than 90% of
materials, “preventing children from obtaining a great deal of useful and appropriate
information that is currently available on the Internet,” according to EPIC. The
study was released the day before the Summit at the Internet Free Expression Alliance
press conference at which free speech groups, including NCAC, spoke.

For NCAC’s Press Release
and NCAC’s Statement for the Internet Summit, click here.