Immediate Past President, Society of Professional Journalists

For Immediate Release

The Society of Professional Journalists opposes rating systems that would restrict free access to Web sites that contain news. We opposed efforts by a private group this summer, and we continue to oppose such efforts now.

Our opposition reflects this organization's fundamental mission: To perpetuate a free press "as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty." That's the reason we joined numerous other organizations to challenge the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act last year as vague and ambiguous.

We were excited by the Supreme Court's ruling that certain elements of the Act exceeded the First Amendment's protections. It was a clear victory for free speech and free press as both evolve with rapidly developing new technology.

At the time, I thought thousands of news-based Web pages would be free to cover important stories that might have run afoul of the law, based on narrow and subjective interpretations of the language. I thought users of the Internet would be relieved of onerous burdens when they communicate by e-mail or in chat rooms.

We recognize that parents and others want to screen certain material coming into their home computers. For now, technology that allows such screening and filtering is still developing and recent research shows some software might screen out too much, including useful and important sites and information. In the long run, such measures may end up being a better remedy than heavy-handed government censorship.

Now, the victory won at the Supreme Court is jeopardized by not-so-voluntary proposals to attach arbitrary ratings and labels on Web sites, including that carry some news content. While not coming from the halls of Congress, pressure from lawmakers is forcing a mad scramble for ratings that satisfy public officials and others.

But this rush to correct a perceived problem -- by first using legislation and now persuasion -- threatens to end development of these new communications technologies. We must be careful that efforts to give individuals greater control of information from the Internet does not choke off vital information needed by a democracy.

The freedoms of speech and press enjoyed on street corners must not be abandoned in cyberspace.

Contact Info:
Steve Geimann, 202-872-9202, ext 248
Fred Brown, SPJ President, 303-820-1663
Julia Grimes, SPJ hq, 765-653-3333

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