The National Coalition Against Censorship has joined the Internet Free Expression Alliance to insure that the Internet Online Summit, which is dominated by an effort to restrict children's access to certain kinds of materials on the Internet, does not promote policies and practices that violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression.
NCAC urges participants in the Summit, convening today in Washington DC, to respect First Amendment rights in their efforts to protect children's well-being. "Children are not harmed by freedom of expression," says Joan E. Bertin, NCAC's Executive Director. "The law should target unlawful actions, not protected speech. We support vigorous enforcement of criminal laws against sexual abuse of children, but oppose efforts to suppress protected, non-obscene speech. Children, like adults, receive enormous intellectual and other benefits from living in a free society."
NCAC is an alliance of 48 national, not-for-profit organizations, including religious, educational, professional, artistic, labor and civil rights groups. United by a conviction that freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression must be defended, they work to educate their own members and the public about the dangers of censorship and how to oppose it.
"Parents are always encouraged to guide and supervise their own children, on the Internet and elsewhere" said Wendy Kaminer, President of NCAC and Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College. "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 notes, "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."
Another problem, according to Bertin, is the role of government. "It's one thing for private companies to produce filtering devices or rating schemes in response to actual consumer demand. It's quite another when government officials threaten action if industry does not 'self-regulate.' It's hard to call that 'voluntary.'" In this case, Bertin added, "it looks as if government is trying to accomplish indirectly what the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional," when it overturned the Communications Decency Act last June.
NCAC is participating in the Summit because it believes that the effort to promote children's welfare is not incompatible with the First Amendment. "In fact, the First Amendment protects childrens' right to learn. In the long run, censorship is more harmful to children than occasional exposure to what some may consider offensive or inappropriate," said Kaminer. There should be "a presumption in favor of unfettered access to non-obscene, protected speech," says Bertin.
Parents who wish to purchase blocking software or other filtering devices, or who favor rating systems, are entitled to "truthful disclosure" about the criteria and methods used and the full range of materials that would become inaccessible. And, says Kaminer, "we are all entitled to see our elected officials demonstrate respect for the Constitution and the Supreme Court's decisions defining the permissible limits of governmental power."
Bertin notes, "I am reminded of a statement made by the governor of the colony of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1671:
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 the government. God keep us from both."1
"Berkeley's statement reminds us," she adds, "that periods of technological change invariably affect social structures and engender anxiety. History should reassure us about the positive aspects of change, and remind us of the danger of overreacting or abandoning our commitment to core principles, such as those reflected in the First Amendment."
It is because the Internet offers unprecedented access to information and ideas that it has fueled demands for censorship. "It would be a terrible irony if expanded opportunities for free expression resulted in expanded power of the government to censor," according to Kaminer.
Statement of the National Coalition Against Censorship for the Internet Online Summit, Washington, D.C., December 1 – 3, 1997
The Internet Online Summit was organized largely in response to the defeat of Congressional efforts, embodied in the Communications Decency Act, to prevent children from gaining access through the Internet to images and information that some find objectionable. The effort to shield children, mostly from materials about sex and sexuality, continues to dominate the agenda of this meeting, as does the premise that free speech on the Internet and child protection are inherently in conflict.
Some organizations participating in the event, including The National Coalition Against Censorship, do not ascribe to the basic premises informing the Summit – that free speech on the Internet poses unprecedented and unreasonable risks to children. NCAC is participating in the Summit to make its position known, but it has also joined the Internet Free Expression Alliance, which is dedicated to protecting the First Amendment right to free expression on the Internet, a right explicitly recognized by the Supreme Court in its decision overturning the Communications Decency Act.
Contemporary debates often benefit from historical perspectives, and the debate about Internet is no exception. 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 the government. God keep us from both."1
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.
The Internet may provide a new venue for criminal activities, but did not itself create new or different crimes. The Internet does, however, provide unprecedented opportunities for the widespread distribution of important ideas and information, and it provides this opportunity in a more democratic fashion than has ever previously existed. Existing laws provide protection against crimes perpetrated through the Internet, while preserving its potential to enhance communications and the dissemination of knowledge.
A few important principles, which may seem obvious, are often overlooked in calls for censorship on the Internet:
Existing criminal laws already prohibit sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children. Better enforcement of these laws will provide better protection for children. Sexual predators who operate by using the Internet can and should be prosecuted. Common sense as well as the Constitution dictate that we go after criminals, not the legal venues they inhabit. We don't shut down selected public streets to prevent muggings or rapes; we shouldn't shut down any highways in cyberspace.
First Amendment prohibitions of government restrictions on speech do not apply to purely private conduct. The threat of governmental intervention, to achieve indirectly something it is forbidden to do directly, does raise constitutional concerns. Industry action to limit the content or availability of protected speech, when done under the threat of governmental regulation, cannot be called "voluntary" and raises First Amendment concerns, as do governmental demands to rate content or produce equipment with built-in filtering mechanisms as the "default."
Parents who choose to limit their children's access to information on the Internet are free to do so, and have a number of options at their disposal. They can elect not to use the technology, they can educate themselves and their children about ways to use it positively, they can warn their children about its potential risks and how to avoid them, and they can purchase many different kinds of filtering tools. Parents are entitled to full disclosure about the criteria and methods used to block access to information and the range of material that will become inaccessible if they use these systems. There are many examples of filtering devices that screen out educational material and controversial political speech, including discussions of censorship, and rating systems are clumsy and inaccurate. Parents are entitled to know the limitations of these approaches.
NCAC believes that 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.
1Quoted in Ingelhart, Press and Speech Freedoms in America, 1619-1995: A Chronology (Westport, CT:Greenwood Press, 1997) p. 9.