A decent amount of chaos

June 14, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

I HAD NEVER HEARD of Judge Stewart R. Dalzell. But I like his style.

He is one of the three federal judges who overturned the Computer Decency Act, so named because our fearless leaders in Congress didn't have the courage to speak the truth, or they would have called it the Computer Censorship Act.

The law -- which the panel of judges called "repugnant" -- had banned indecent and "patently offensive" (whatever that means) speech from the Internet.

Here's what Judge Dalzell wrote:

"Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."

This is my kind of judge. What I mean is, this is not the kind of judge who'd be comfortable in a powdered wig. Judge Dalzell, whoever he may be, gets to the essence of free speech: It is chaotic. And it is cacophonous.

At its best, and also its worst, free speech can be loud and ugly and poetic and unfettered and soaring and offensive, patently or otherwise. Americans have a love affair with free speech. It's our first amendment and, so far, the best amendment.

You can find signs of free speech everywhere.

Free speech is every political argument you've ever engaged in.

And free speech is Dennis Rodman's hair.

And, of course, free speech is the Internet. The Internet is the newest, and in some ways the hippest, forum for free speech. Anyone who has access gets to participate. No topics are off-limits. No one can stop anyone from saying whatever he or she pleases. That's chaos, all right. No censors. No speech police. No taste police. Pure freedom.

Many middle-aged people (like myself) barely understand the Internet. Even though I write on a word processor, I prefer words on paper. When I'm chatting, I don't usually go to a chat room. Heck, I'm not even that comfortable on a telephone.

But for millions of Americans and for many millions more to come, the 'Net is either a toy or a tool or both. To watch your children hanging 10 (isn't that what they mean by surfing the 'Net?) is to understand they live in a world many of us will never fathom.

In Congress, where most of the lawmakers don't know cyberspace from cybernetics, they are at a loss. Somebody told them there was indecent (read: dirty) stuff on the Internet. So they passed a law that would protect children from indecent (read: dirty) speech, even if it meant trampling on the rights of everyone old enough to vote.

There are at least two problems with this. The first is determining what's dirty. On America On-Line, they banned the word "breast" until those who wanted to enter a breast cancer chat room objected. I never thought of the word breast as dirty, at least once I escaped puberty. Maybe only certain dirty-minded people think that way. Maybe someone else thinks elbow is dirty.

You can laugh, but James Joyce's "Ulysses," which many hold to be the greatest novel written in the English language, was banned in America for more than 20 years. Upon the passage of this law, librarians wondered if they were at risk putting the contents of any adult book on the Internet. If we're worried about indecency, won't we have to, while we're at it, ban children from libraries?

The second point is that, even as the law was being written, the market was overtaking the lawmakers. Computers move that quickly. You don't have to watch the kids to protect them from smut. With the proper software, I'm assured by the experts, anyone can live in a smut-free computer world.

As the judges pointed out, the government has no place in this world. Certain kinds of speech, such as child pornography, are already illegal. But Congress had more on its mind. This is an election year. We live in the era of V-chips and curfews and school uniforms. The world, we have determined, is a scary place. We could fix it or we could just hide our children from it.

But kids are into discovery. They'll use that computer to go places we can't even imagine. If that means that along the way your 15-year-old is downloading Playboy, instead of sneaking it into the house and hiding it under his bed, that just might be the price we have to pay for free speech.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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