Internet Online Summit Participants Must Respect First Amendment Law and Values, Too

Statement of the National Coalition Against Censorship

For Release December 1, 1997

The National Coalition Against Censorship has joined the Internet Free Expression Alliance to insure that the Internet Online Summit, which is dominated by an effort to restrict children's access to certain kinds of materials on the Internet, does not promote policies and practices that violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression.

NCAC urges participants in the Summit, convening today in Washington DC, to respect First Amendment rights in their efforts to protect children's well-being. "Children are not harmed by freedom of expression," says Joan E. Bertin, NCAC's Executive Director. "The law should target unlawful actions, not protected speech. We support vigorous enforcement of criminal laws against sexual abuse of children, but oppose efforts to suppress protected, non-obscene speech. Children, like adults, receive enormous intellectual and other benefits from living in a free society."

NCAC is an alliance of 48 national, not-for-profit organizations, including religious, educational, professional, artistic, labor and civil rights groups. United by a conviction that freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression must be defended, they work to educate their own members and the public about the dangers of censorship and how to oppose it.

"Parents are always encouraged to guide and supervise their own children, on the Internet and elsewhere," said Wendy Kaminer, President of NCAC and Public Policy Fellow at Radcliffe College. "But parents have widely divergent viewpoints about what and how their kids should learn, and children within the same age group have different sensibilities and levels of sophistication." In addition, Kaminer notes, "definitions of harmful speech are subjective and quite political. We already have too many examples of filtering devices that screen out educational material and controversial political speech, including discussions of censorship, and we've seen how clumsy and inaccurate rating systems can be. Parents are entitled to know the limitations of these approaches."

Another problem, according to Bertin, is the role of government. "It's one thing for private companies to produce filtering devices or rating schemes in response to actual consumer demand. It's quite another when government officials threaten action if industry does not 'self-regulate.' It's hard to call that 'voluntary.'" In this case, Bertin added, "it looks as if government is trying to accomplish indirectly what the Supreme Court said was unconstitutional," when it overturned the Communications Decency Act last June.

NCAC is participating in the Summit because it believes that the effort to promote children's welfare is not incompatible with the First Amendment. "In fact, the First Amendment protects childrens' right to learn. In the long run, censorship is more harmful to children than occasional exposure to what some may consider offensive or inappropriate," said Kaminer. There should be "a presumption in favor of unfettered access to non-obscene, protected speech," says Bertin.

Parents who wish to purchase blocking software or other filtering devices, or who favor rating systems, are entitled to "truthful disclosure" about the criteria and methods used and the full range of materials that would become inaccessible. And, says Kaminer, "we are all entitled to see our elected officials demonstrate respect for the Constitution and the Supreme Court's decisions defining the permissible limits of governmental power."

Bertin notes, "I am reminded of a statement made by the governor of the colony of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1671:

I thank God we have not free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not these hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience and heresy, and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both."

"Berkeley's statement reminds us," she adds, "that periods of technological change invariably affect social structures and engender anxiety. History should reassure us about the positive aspects of change, and remind us of the danger of overreacting or abandoning our commitment to core principles, such as those reflected in the First Amendment."

It is because the Internet offers unprecedented access to information and ideas, that it has fueled demands for censorship. "It would be a terrible irony if expanded opportunities for free expression resulted in expanded power of the government to censor," according to Kaminer.

For more information, contact Joan Bertin at 212-807-6222.

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