|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 21||June 30, 1997|
As we celebrate last week's Supreme Court decision rejecting the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as unconstitutional, we mustn't forget that the struggle to ensure free speech in cyberspace is far from over. We can expect more legislation in Congress, as well as in many state Legislatures.
But the real threat to the First Amendment in cyberspace may be much closer to home. Local public libraries are increasingly coming under attack, primarily by the Christian right, for providing unlimited Internet access to citizens within their communities.
Citing the potential harm to children of exposure to hard-core porn, would-be censors are starting to pressure their libraries to install filtering software on computers that allow library patrons access to the Internet. And since it's likely that a growing number of citizens will rely on their public libraries for Internet access, these filters could become a far more insidious form of censorship.
Many of the filters don't just ban access to pornographic Web sites, they ban information about AIDS and safe sex practices, birth control, and sexuality. They may even ban access to Web sites reflecting values or ideas that the filter manufacturers don't agree with. CyberSitter, for example, has been found to ban political sites such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Furthermore, the software filters don't necessarily ban all sites that are potentially harmful to young children. Web pages that promote hate speech, racism, or violence, for example, may not be filtered out.
For many citizens, hate speech and racism are just as offensive as hard core porn. But unpleasant as many of these sites may be, in democratic societies we know that unpopular ideas must be accorded the same rights of expression as popular ideas. Unfortunately, this point has largely been obscured in the U.S. because the debate about speech in cyberspace has been framed around the potential harm to children from Web sites containing pornography. In other parts of the world, the real issue is easier to grasp -- the Internet makes it possible for citizens to communicate ideas and values that are controversial or unpopular, or that pose a threat to those in power.
The fact is, free speech will always be a threat to those who wish to impose their values or authority on others. By focusing on socially unacceptable content like pornography, and framing the debate in terms of harm to children, the Christian right has diverted attention from its real goal. And the goal is to impose conservative Christian values on all of us, whether or not we agree.
With the Supreme Court decision behind us, and the debate over censorship moving into our communities, it is time to put the issue of Internet pornography into perspective. Sure, it is possible for a child to be harmed by a pedophile who lurks on Internet chat lines, but far more children are in danger of being harmed by their own family members in their own homes.
As advocates for free speech, we must shift the debate over Internet content away from the issue of pornography, and focus it on our right to express differing political and social values. Certainly, the welfare of our children in cyberspace is important, but it's a separate issue, and censorship of Internet content is not the answer.
So how do we protect our children from sexually explicit Web sites and other offensive content that can be accessed on library computers? By paying attention to them, supervising their use of the Internet, teaching them to be just as wary of strangers in cyberspace as in the school yard. And by remembering that computers are not babysitters, and our public libraries are not day care centers.
For some parents, software filters may be appropriate tool for supervising a child's online activities on a home computer. But parents should check out the software thoroughly before installing it, and understand exactly how it works. Make sure you're installing software, not censorware.
And if our children should come across Web sites that are pornographic, or offensive in other ways, we must talk to them about it, and use the opportunity to teach our children about the First Amendment and its importance to a free society.
For this is the essence of tolerance. And it's a concept that is equally important in cyberspace, in our communities, our churches, and our homes.
An good discussion of software filters can be found on the Web at: http://www.spectacle.org/cs/library.html, and an analysis of the Supreme Court's CDA decision is at: http://www.spectacle.org/cda/cdanl.html. Both were written by Jonathan Wallace, a New York City-based attorney, author and free speech advocate. He is the co-author, with Mark Mangan, of Sex, Laws and Cyberspace (Henry Holt 1996).
The Supreme Court's CDA decision can be found on the ACLU Web site at: http://www.aclu.org/court/renovacludec.html.
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