NCAC Censorship News Issue #59:
Republicans in both houses of Congress who eulogize less government and more respect for tradition, displayed devout contempt for one of our most important traditions — the right to free speech—by promoting and voting for a telecommunications bill that tramples First Amendment rights in two ways: by censoring the Internet and establishing government-required ratings for violence and sex in every television and cable program. Democrats scrambled to show they were part of the repressive tide.
Congress and the Internet
Caving in to the latest sex panic — this time about cyberspace — fueled by Senators Exon and Grassley, the Christian Coalition, and other self-styled "decency" groups, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for a Communications Decency Act, aimed at making the Internet "smut"-free for n (Censorship News 58). The House followed suit.
Knowing full well that establishing a variety of speech crimes for electronic communication does not comport with the values of the First Amendment, many legislators cast cynical votes.
"Where was Newt?" many were asking about the inclusion of drastic censorship of the Internet in the House version of the bill. Representative Gingrich first strongly opposed this censorship, saying "it is clearly a violation of free speech, and it’s a violation of the right of adults to communicate with each other." But at the last minute he permitted a "managers’ amendment" adding the very constraints he had opposed. So obscure was the amendment that a New York Times story detailing the House bill as passed failed to report its inclusion! It is not known whether, in the frenzy to quickly pass legislation that requires careful study, many legislators were as unaware as the Times.
Time magazine added to the hysteria at the height of the debate with a lurid feature on a study of computer pornography and depicted on its cover a pasty-faced, bug-eyed child—presumably a typical victim of the technology. The study by Martin Rimm, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, claimed to establish the pervasiveness of pornographic imagery on computers but has been widely discredited for its shoddy research methods and misleading presentation. Rimm’s conclusions about the assaultiveness and omnipresence of pornography on the Internet are totally unfounded; for example, he focuses on private fee-for-service bulletin boards which are limited to adults with credit cards. Senator Grassley used this misleading information to inflame the Senate discussion of cyberspace and is now pushing even more drastic action, with Senator Dole’s support. Free speech proponents are hoping that the House/Senate Conference Committee will delete the Exon-style restrictions.
When this new sex panic, which seems to greet each new medium of communi from comic books to paperback books, subside?
Congress and Television
Never before has Congress passed legislation directly regulating communication content as it is now doing by requiring ratings for every television program. With the President’s strong support, Congress has mandated a "V-chip" in new television sets, linked to a government-required rating system which measures sex and violence. The problematic nature of such ratings is evident when one considers the sheer volume of constantly burgeoning channels and programs, and the complexity — and chilling effect — of rating news programs, documentaries, cartoons, talk shows, and much more. Most problematic is the question which underlies all censorship: who decides? Technology is rapidly developing and already on the market to provide parents with flexibility and control to choose television programs and computer services that accord with their own val judgements — not those imposed by government.