The Supreme Court Gets It RightBarry Fagin
Sometimes when you're deeply involved in an issue, you forget how hard it may be for others to see your point of view. After a while, you become so used to the facts that it gets hard to explain your position. Our struggle fighting Internet censorship has been a lot like that.
Last March that struggle brought us to the Supreme Court. Now that the Court has ruled, we want to explain why we think that its ruling is not only the most important First Amendment decision in decades, but the most important pro-family decision of our time.
About a year ago, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, which included a draconian piece of legislation called the Communications Decency Act. This measure mandated 2-year jail sentences for anyone who placed indecent material on the Internet in a manner available to minors. The legislation was written by and fought for by groups claiming to protect children.
Several months before, we had formed Families Against Internet Censorship (http://rainbow.rmi.net/~fagin/faic). As our membership grew, we were asked to join other plaintiffs in a legal challenge. This led to the recent Supreme Court decision. As we had hoped, the Court found the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional.
Arguing our side of the issue has been hard. On the surface, the CDA seems so obviously right. All it seems to be saying is that children shouldn’t see inappropriate material. Well, of course, what reasonable, responsible person could disagree with that?
The answer is all reasonable, responsible people should disagree with the way the law tries to accomplish this worthy goal. We want to explain why.
Throughout the debate on this issue, the other side has claimed that it is in society's interest to censor the net. Remember, though, that the object of censorship here is an entire "world". This world has village greens, movie theaters, bookstores, car dealerships, churches, schools, and anything else you can imagine. Some places in this world are meant for children. Some are not.
The nature of the World Wide Web means that anything posted is potentially available to everyone, including minors. To say that the whole Internet must be appropriate for a 4 year-old is to say that a whole world has to be appropriate for children. Adults in the United States have many real-world places that they hold apart from kids. We think this is a good thing. In a perfect world, there should be things that your children shouldn't see.
But to really appreciate why the Court's decision is the right one, you have to combine the reality of the net with a sense of perspective. While the censors spend their time trotting out the same one or two examples of accidental exposure to improper material, the reality is that millions of children go online everyday without ever having a problem. On the Internet, you see only what you deliberately seek out. It's not passive, like television. That's why we'd rather surf the web with our kids than watch TV. It's safer, more interesting, and just plain more fun.
There is also the other side's hypocrisy to consider. It troubles us that the same group that wrote the CDA is also sponsoring Parental Rights Initiatives around the country. Why are they so eager to empower parents in other venues but at the same time working so hard to destroy parental responsibility on the net? It just doesn't make sense. Or rather, it makes sense only as part of another agenda, one that has nothing to do with protecting children.
We believe that all attempts to circumvent the First Amendment in cyberspace will be found unconstitutional. It's naive, however, to think we've seen the last of this issue. Even now, the censors are marshaling their forces for another assault on the Constitution.
But this time, we hope things will be different. This time, instead of "back dooring" a couple of paragraphs in a large, complex piece of legislation, Congress should carefully consider the issues.
This is what we would like Congress to understand:
Protecting children is important, and voting against a bill that claims to protect children is politically risky. It requires courage, integrity, and a willingness to put the good of the country above your standing at the polls.
The net could be the most profound force for improving the human condition this century has seen. To realize that potential, the net has to be free. Free from unnecessary regulation, free from costs imposed from without, free to grow according to the peaceful, voluntary actions of its users, free to solve its own problems. Right now, technology already exists that gives parents more control over what their children see than any law you could ever pass. If you believe in good government, you must oppose attempts to censor the net.
That's because when all is said and done, good government is about trust. We believe that, as parents in an American family, we should be trusted to make the right decisions for our kids. Trust us to change their diapers, pat their backs, wipe their tears, screen their dates, and send them out in to the world with deep and lasting moral values.
Trust us on the Internet, too. We think we've earned it.