The cacophony of freedom Internet victory: Judges overturn congressional attempt to block 'indecent' material.

June 14, 1996

IT SEEMS safe to say that no judicial pronouncement in history has been spread to so many people so quickly as this week's decision from a panel of federal judges declaring unconstitutional a law attempting to block indecent material on the Internet. Within minutes of the announcement of the ruling in Philadelphia, the entire text of the decision -- some 175 pages on paper or, in a measure more appropriate for the Internet, more than a quarter-megabyte of material -- was distributed on the World Wide Web.

The text that became almost instantly available to people around the world brings cold comfort to dictators and regimes trying to hold tightly to the reins of authority. It is instead a ringing endorsement of one of the most basic tenets of democracy -- and of the United States Constitution -- the right to freedom of expression. It is also suffused with praise of the Internet as the most widely participatory form of mass speech yet developed.

As Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote, "The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green, or the mails." As such, it "deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion."

The unanimous decision elicited such strong feelings in the judges that each wrote a separate opinion. In part, they praised the democratic nature of the Internet. But they were equally firm in their condemnation of the attempt by Congress and the Clinton administration to restrict indecent material on a democratic mass medium.

The attempt was well-intended. The Communications Decency Act, passed earlier this year as part of a major overhaul of telecommunications laws, had been championed as an effort to protect children from indecent or offensive material that might appear on the Internet.

But good intentions are not the best protector of basic freedoms. The court's affirmation of that truth should spur the development of appropriate technological tools for helping parents screen out offensive material -- a far better approach than restricting free speech.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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