It's 'the freest community in American life,' so let's limit it

March 23, 1997|By Sara Engram

THE COUNTRY WITNESSED a curious spectacle this past week as lawyers for the United States government argued before the Supreme Court that the Internet offers too much of a good thing -- specifically, free speech.

The ostensible cause for concern is children, who in cruising the information highway could encounter indecent or obscene material better kept from young and innocent eyes.

Although many experienced users think it unlikely that children would easily find explicitly obscene material, it is not impossible. So last year, with the support of the Clinton administration, Congress went to bat to protect their innocence by tacking the Communications Decency Act onto a broader telecommunications bill.

The result could be bad for Internet users -- and for a communications revolution that is already challenging our comfortable assumptions about information, power and politics. But even if the Supreme Court fails to uphold unfettered freedom on the Internet, the decision will likely only delay its development, not derail it.

One reason the decency act gathered strong support is that adults are often at a disadvantage when it comes to the communications revolution. In many households children are more experienced travelers on the electronic highway than their parents -- plenty of whom are candidates for road kill on what remains for them an exotic new medium.

Unlike previous cases involving the bedrock American value of free speech, this one can't be neatly tucked into the two familiar categories of speech, print or broadcast. The courts have developed rules governing the application of the First Amendment to each of these categories. But the Internet defies easy labels.

This case is widely seen as probably the most important First Amendment case in the past quarter-century. And no wonder. As U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote last year in striking down the sections of the decency act now at issue, ''It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen.''

In an analysis of the case for the American Bar Association, University of Texas law professor Scot Powe notes, ''The Internet provides what First Amendment theory has always desired: ease of access to listeners by speakers and to speakers by listeners.''

Not surprisingly, such unrestricted freedom has produced some speech that is offensive, indecent and obscene -- not what any conscientious parent would want a child to see.

But some of the government's arguments leap to a strained conclusion: that without constraints on this medium -- in other words, without censorship -- parents and other responsible adults will abandon the Internet, undermining its usefulness.

As the wired generation might put it: Hello?

The price of freedom

Not only is this assumption unproved (have parents abandoned violent television shows because of their concern for impressionable children?), but as Mr. Powe notes, this line of thinking runs directly counter to fundamental assumptions about the First Amendment. The price of freedom, the Supreme Court has said, is raucous debate that can include offensive utterance, but these are ''necessary side effects of broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve.''

''Wired'' magazine, often referred to as the ''bible of the wired generation,'' is a window into a world that can easily intimidate traditionalists. But as Jon Katz writes in the current issue, the online world has become a bastion of individual liberty.

''The online world is the freest community in American life,'' he writes. ''Its members can do things considered unacceptable elsewhere in our culture. They can curse freely, challenge the existence of god, explore their sexuality nearly at will, talk to radical thinkers from all over the world. They can commit verbal treason.''

But this world is still a wild frontier, with a single dominant ethic: ''that information wants to be free.''

As Mr. Katz sees it, ''The realization that children have broken away from many societal constraints and now have access to a vast information universe is one of the most frightening ideas in contemporary America.''

For him -- and for many fans of the online world -- the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is the Net's equivalent of the British Crown's Stamp Act, the 1765 law that pushed the colonists toward revolution. It also casts Net fans as the true defenders of traditional American values.

As communications technology evolves, so will the technology that would allow parents to block obscene or offensive information. In the meantime, the would-be censors should relax.

Generations of Americans have survived the cacophony of free speech in its ever-evolving forms. Indecency in the digital nation is a lesser threat than censorship.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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