INTERNET FREE EXPRESSION ALLIANCE
Joint Letter to the United States Senate
July 14, 1998
Re: S. 1619 and S. 1482
We are writing on behalf of the undersigned organizations to express our concerns about two bills that would restrict free expression on the Internet -- S. 1619 and S. 1482. We understand that both of these bills may soon be considered by the Senate.
One year ago, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which made it a crime to transmit "indecent" materials on the Internet, violated the First Amendment. The two pending bills ignore the central holding of the Court; expression on the Internet is entitled to the highest degree of First Amendment protection. The Internet School Filtering Act (S. 1619), sponsored by Senator McCain, would require that all public libraries and schools that receive federal funds for Internet access install blocking software to restrict minors' access to "inappropriate" material. S. 1482, sponsored by Senator Coats, would punish commercial online distributors of material deemed "harmful to minors" with up to six months in jail and a $50,000 fine.
We share the concern of Sens. McCain and Coats that the Internet remain a safe and rewarding medium for young people. However, we strongly believe that these bills embrace approaches -- filtering and criminalization -- that are both constitutionally suspect and ultimately ineffective in providing our children with positive online experiences. As such, we urge you to consider a better approach to this issue, one that would encourage the development of "Internet drivers' education" programs of the kind being successfully employed in communities throughout the nation. These programs may effectively supplement policies that limit Internet use to educational and curricular purposes. Individual school districts that find them useful currently are free to adopt such educational use policies, even without specific legislation.
We urge you to consider this alternative approach because we believe that parents and teachers -- not the federal government -- should provide our children with guidance about accessing information on the Internet. Clumsy and ineffective blocking programs are "quick fix" solutions to parental concerns that provide a false sense of security that minors will be protected from all material that parents may find inappropriate. At the same time, filtering software restricts access to valuable, constitutionally protected online speech about topics ranging from safe sex, AIDS, gay and lesbian issues, news articles, and women's rights. Religious groups such as the Society of Friends and the Glide United Methodist Church have been blocked by these imperfect censorship tools, as have policy groups like the American Family Association. This type of arbitrary censorship is a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
S. 1482 should be rejected because it contains many of the unconstitutional provisions of the Communications Decency Act that were unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU. Like the CDA, S. 1482 would have the effect of criminalizing protected speech among adults. Whatever governmental interest may exist to protect children from harmful materials, that interest does not justify the broad suppression of adult speech. While the bill is ostensibly aimed at "commercial" web sites, that term is so broad that it covers anything from an on-line book seller like Amazon.com to a non-profit website that sells books or T-shirts.
The age verification affirmative defense of S. 1482 -- which precisely duplicates the CDA's defense -- ignores the finding in Reno v. ACLU that there simply is no way to verify age on the Internet. As the Supreme Court noted, the vast majority of websites are not financially or technically capable of requiring a credit card or other form of identification to verify the age of users. The government may not mandate the application of a legal standard to the Internet -- whether it be "indecency" or speech that is "harmful to minors" -- that requires speakers to distinguish between adults and minors when such a distinction cannot be made.
Finally, S. 1482 will not be effective in keeping from minors material that might be inappropriate for them. No criminal provision will be more effective than efforts to educate parents and minors about Internet safety and how to properly use online resources. Moreover, the Internet is a global medium. Despite all the enforcement efforts that might be made, a national censorship law cannot protect children from online content they will always be able to access from foreign sources.
For the foregoing reasons we urge you to oppose S. 1619 and S. 1482 and any other efforts to dilute the potential of this powerful medium. We hope you will agree with our view that an educational approach, as opposed to filtering requirements and new criminal laws, is the best way to address the issue of how our children use the Internet.
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Laura W. Murphy
Washington Office Director
American Civil Liberties Union
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
Electronic Frontier Foundation
David L. Sobel
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Joan M. Garry
Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition
National Campaign for Freedom of Expression
National Coalition Against Censorship
PEN American Center
People For the American Way