Decency Act thrown out until Supreme Court rules


Federal law could limit student journalists' on-line rights





WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new law significantly limiting free speech in cyberspace is on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, along with the fate of student journalists’ on-line rights.

In June, a panel of three judges ruled the Communications Decency Act unconstitutionally vague and in violation of the First Amendment. The lower court’s decision in American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, No. 96-963 (E.D. Pa. June 11, 1996), will be reexamined by the Supreme Court on appeal, possibly in the fall. The legislation was signed by President Clinton in February and establishes criminal penalties for the distribution of “indecent” or “patently offensive” material to minors in cyberspace.

“Any content-based regulation of the Internet, no matter how benign the purpose, could burn the global village to roast the pig,” concluded federal District Judge Stewart Dalzell in his opinion. “These findings lead to the conclusion that Congress may not regulate indecency on the Internet at all.”

If the lower court ruling is overturned, cyberspace will receive a massive Congressional overhaul. The purpose: “To protect children on the information superhighway,” according to the law’s sponsor, Senator Jim Exon (D-Neb.). Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union said the law would inevitably limit First Amendment rights on the nation’s campuses.

Student journalists and journalism educators and professionals from different areas of the country have expressed similar feelings toward the restrictions set forth in the law.

“The Communications Decency Act was hastily drafted without much thought by Congress as to its global First Amendment implications,” said Robert D. Richards, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.

“If the Supreme Court were to reverse the district court’s ruling, then an argument could be made that information distributed over the Internet deserves less First Amendment protection,” he said.

Richards said professional and student news organizations with on-line editions would lose constitutional protections if the legislation survives.

Kate Kofteci, editor of the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, said she found the provisions of the law “disturbing.”

“I don’t see how restricting the Internet can help at all,” Kofteci said. “I think that regulation of newspapers on-line is going a bit overboard.”

Candace Perkins Bowen, president of the national high school adviser’s group, Journalism Education Association, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Internet screening under the law’s provisions would block students’ access to constitutionally protected material. She said high school students would be directly affected.

“It makes site providers liable if those under 18 access material that is ‘indecent’ or ‘patently offensive,’” Bowen said. “This means a publication adviser could risk fine and jail if one of his or her students … surfs into a questionable area.”

Bowen said important sites would have to shut down or risk prosecution if the ruling is overturned. She said Planned Parenthood and other organizations would no longer be able to hold a place on the World Wide Web.

“Planned Parenthood has specific and graphic sexual information that some people would find ‘indecent’ and ‘patently offensive’,” Bowen said. 3Even sites about safe sex or brutality to women in Bosnia and the like might have some people object to them and might have to shut down.”

College editors are doubtful that their newspapers’ rights would be affected if the law was passed. The editor of the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor said he was more concerned about the availability of research information. “It would put a limit on the amount of ideas on the Internet and I think it should definitely be a free flow of ideas,” said Ronnie Glassberg, Daily editor. “I feel that parental control at home is enough regulation.”

Both Richards and Bowen said they believed users of the Internet would not have to worry because they felt the lower court’s ruling would be upheld.

“The CDA would be a threat to student-created home pages, listservs and even e-mail,” Richards said. “I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will follow the lead of the district court and recognize that the Internet has enormous potential for the transmission of information and thus needs and deserves full First Amendment protection.”

The law would not affect foreign providers who post information on the web, said Bowen. No foreign sites would have to abide by U.S. law.


Fall 1996, reports