Budget clause is meant to keep children from Internet porn ACLU is expected to sue over freedom of speech

October 17, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Tucked into the $1.7 trillion budget agreement is a new measure meant to restrict children's access to pornography on the Internet.

The measure was sponsored by Republicans working to overcome free-speech objections that the Supreme Court used in overturning a previous law.

But even before Congress passes the new budget, the same groups that defeated the last effort are vowing to sue once again.

The old act tried to regulate access by children to "indecent" or "patently offensive" pornographic material. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

The new version, called the Child Online Privacy Act, changes the standard, saying that Internet merchants and others will be in violation only if they give children access to material that is "harmful to minors."

Internet service providers are exempt from liability if they do not produce the offending material.

Peggy Peterson, spokeswoman for Rep. Michael G. Oxley, an Ohio Republican who is a primary sponsor of the proposal, said her office had established that the new language was backed by numerous court decisions providing a clear and rigorous standard for violation over the past 30 years.

In a general sense, that standard refers to material that is specifically created for prurient interests, that graphically depicts lewd or sexual behavior, and that holds no social, artistic or scientific value.

But Ann Beeson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which led the last court fight, said "this one has the same flaws as the last one," the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

"We will definitely sue," Beeson said, adding that the ACLU and a dozen allied groups would file their suit next week.

"Under this law," she said, "I think even the New York Times would be in violation, by posting the Starr report on its Web site."

Peterson scoffed that "the Starr report does not even approach the harmful-to-minors standard."

The Clinton administration opposes inclusion of the proposal in the budget act, but allowed it to slip past on the assumption that the courts would overturn it, an administration official said.

The Justice Department sent a letter to Congress this week, saying the department believed that the new proposal would run afoul of the same First Amendment concerns that ensnared the the Communications Decency Act.

New York Times spokeswoman Nancy Nielsen said the Times and other major news organizations had been asked to join in the last suit and declined.

"We haven't followed the new one closely," she added, "but we're looking at it."

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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