Starr report raises new issues of online smut

September 21, 1998|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If events of the last few weeks have left you with any doubts that official Washington has lost its collective mind, consider this:

Less than a week after its members voted to post the graphic details of President Clinton's sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky on the World Wide Web, a House subcommittee approved a bill that could make it a federal offense for commercial Web sites to make the document available to the public.

The vehicle for this bizarre political attempt to have it both ways is the Child Online Protection Act - an election-year effort to restore controls on Internet content that the Supreme Court voided last year when it threw out most of the Communications Decency Act.

The House bill, sponsored by Ohio Republican Michael G. Moxley, mirrors legislation passed by the Senate in July that would require commercial Web site operators (including newspapers and TV networks) to ban children's access to "material that is harmful to minors" by appealing to "a prurient interest in nudity, sex or excretion."

If you've read the Starr report - or your children asked embarrassing questions about it - you know why it's the hottest document in the history of the Web. People aren't downloading it for Starr's legal discourse on the nature of perjury, any more than they read Playboy for the articles or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue for descriptions of Australian beach flora.

There are plenty of unabashed adult Web sites with a lot less steam than Starr's sexual narrative. In fact, most of the major news organizations who posted or printed the Starr report did so with a warning that it might not be suitable for children's consumption. Under the terms of Moxley's bill, that's not good enough.

Frankly, I don't know which bothers me more - the idea of 9-year-olds surfing through Starr's salacious details of sex in the White House, or the hypocrisy of lawmakers who would put this kind of stuff on the Web and then impose a $50,000 fine for passing it on.

But debates about pornography, freedom of the press, and children are rarely rational. One reason is because so many people - myself included - are of two minds on the issue.

On one hand, I don't think young children should be bombarded by explicit sexual material - or solicited by daily e-mail ads for porn sites. As a parent, I was appalled at some of the stuff my kids grew up watching on prime time network TV - which is ostensibly regulated by law. I definitely don't think children should be browsing through online galleries of sex photos.

On the other, as a journalist and civil libertarian, I don't like people telling you and me what we can and can't read. And make no mistake, that's exactly what the bills Congress is considering would do.

To be sure, the bill does include vague exemptions for "political" material, and it protects Web operators who screen their users by requiring them to use a credit card or some kind of electronic age verification scheme. Moxley hopes that will get the measure past a Supreme Court that has extended the Constitution's fullest protections to the new electronic medium.

Peggy Patterson, Moxley's spokeswoman, denied that the Starr report was harmful to minors (I guess that business with the cigar is Sesame Street material). She also argued that under the terms of the bill, the report would be "completely protected speech."

Of course, that's just Moxley's opinion. The problem with this legislation - and others that regulate content, even for worthwhile purposes - is that there's only one way to determine what's protected and what's not. A prosecutor has to charge somebody with a crime.

That's the equivalent of a Full Employment Act for prosecutors with political agendas - even if they lose the case, they win by showing the world they're tough on pornographers. On the other hand, even if a Web site operator wins, he loses - just ask Bill Clinton how much time and money it takes to defend against a prosecutor with a blank check from the taxpayers.

This is the so-called "chilling" effect of laws that otherwise seem reasonable. Who wants a federal prosecutor breathing down his neck? Who wants to wind up acquitted but bankrupt? Better to keep anything stronger than Bambi off your Web site - even if it's a document paid for by the taxpayers and published by Congress.

We have a strong First Amendment because the founding fathers wanted to stop political prosecutions in their tracks. There are other ways to deal with the problem of kids and Web XTC pornography - especially since this measure won't stop anybody who wants to set up a porn site offshore.

California Republican Christopher Cox, a rare voice of reason on the commerce subcommittee, put it this way: "Enacting a criminal scheme that doesn't get at the problem is more government and less relief than our parents and kids are entitled to."

Pub Date: 9/21/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.