On The Net, Anything Goes

BORN OF A HYSTERIA TRIGGERED by a genuine problem - the ease with which wired-up teenagers can get hold of nasty pictures on the Internet - the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was never really destined to be a companion piece to the Bill of Rights. Last week the Supreme Court officially deleted the CDA on constitutional grounds, concluding that the act endangers free speech and ""threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community.''

The decision had resonance far beyond dirty pictures. This was the first time that the highest court had contemplated the status of the key medium of the next century. Instead of regarding the Net with the caution the court usually shows while exploring new frontiers, the justices went out of their way to assure that this most demo- cratic of mediums (where ""any person... can become a town crier... [or] pamphleteer,'' the court gushed) would receive the highest level of protection. Internet speakers will not be shackled with the regulations that limit content on television and radio; instead, they will enjoy the freedom granted to printed matter. And it will be up to parents, not the government, to keep kids from accessing smut. ""This represents the legal birth certificate for the Internet,'' said Bruce Ennis, who argued the case before the court, representing a group of plaintiffs ranging from the American Library Association to Human Rights Watch.

In contrast, the CDA was a virtual death sentence. Introduced by (now retired) Sen. James Exon, without hearings or formal debate, the amendment to the 1996 Telecommunications Bill not only outlawed the electronic circulation to minors of ""indecent'' material (in the legal sense, this includes everything from nude photos of Pamela Lee Anderson to a stray four-letter epithet); it also ordained big fines and two years upriver to those who spoke out of turn. Opponents insisted that this trespassed on the First Amendment, and a year ago they convinced a three-judge panel in Philadelphia that the lawmakers had overstepped their bounds. As ACLU lead attorney Chris Hansen sees it, the key was requesting that the judges hear expert witnesses on the issues. By the end of the hearings the judges had attained near-ninja Internet knowledge - which taught them the impossibility of keeping smut from minors without infringing on all speech.

The highest court proved equally adept students. John Paul Stevens's opinion reads like a cyberspace primer, providing the Lexis crowd with crisp definitions of e-mail, chat rooms, mail exploders and the World Wide Web. Reading this must have set the plaintiffs' hearts aflutter, because in order to see how the CDA steps on the First Amendment, it is crucial to understand how the Internet works. Congress proceeded on the reasonable premise that it should be wrong to send smut to minors. But it is impossible to fully control who sees information posted on the Net. And in the Philadelphia hearings, witnesses proved that material outlawed went far beyond smut: it included AIDS information, Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, museum exhibits and, according to a government witness, the Vanity Fair cover showing a pregnant Demi Moore.

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If there was alarm in the court's response, it was not at the prospect of pimply adolescents exposed to Hustler's Web site, but at other sorts of scenarios, like a parent going to jail for sending birth-control information to a 17-year-old son or daughter away at college. Even the partial dissent, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and endorsed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, shared the majority's disdain for the CDA's ex- cesses. Unlike the majority, they felt that it was possible to sanction indecency knowingly sent by adults to minors.

""The court did its homework,'' said Ennis. ""In Congress, they should have done theirs.'' While some legislators accepted the rap - ""Our law was like a bull in a china shop,'' admits GOP Rep. Rick White - others felt that the justices blew it. ""I'm at a loss to see how the court makes the distinction between a TV and a computer screen,'' said Republican Sen. Dan Coats. Read the decision, Senator: ""The Internet is not as "invasive' as radio or television,'' writes Stevens, citing the lower court's finding that for Net users the ""odds are slim'' of accidentally encountering porn. (Especially since most commercial online pornographers require credit cards, and even those who don't do so generally ask browsers to affirm that they are over 18.)

And if the kid wants to see the hot stuff? That's where parents must come in. The CDA's opponents have long contended that the solution to the problem is having Mom and Dad utilize the growing family of Internet filters to prevent Junior from surfing in the flesh zone. These products are constantly improving, but the fact is that the Internet makes it easier for a motivated youngster to access salacious material. That, the court decided, was the trade-off to preserving free speech.

While the court feels comfortable with this, the forces in Congress that wrought the CDA can't accept that trade-off - and they are already vowing to try again. ""Given the court's decision, I don't know what we can craft, short of a constitutional amendment,'' says Coats, who does not rule out such a movement. Others advise against knee-jerk tactics. ""Congress should take a deep breath, read the decision and think,'' says White. ""Passing a law may not be the solution to the problem.''

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The Clinton administration has its own ideas: in mid-July it will unveil a plan to make the filtering technologies ubiquitous. (Currently fewer than 40 percent of parents use them.) ""We're going to get the V-chip for the Internet,'' says White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel. ""Same goal, different means.''

Cyberspace will surely discuss all of this in its own unrestrained, long-winded manner. Last week, though, it was celebration time, not only online but at in-the-flesh rallies in Austin, Texas, and San Francisco. Mike Godwin, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke for Netheads everywhere. After citing the likes of Thomas Jefferson, he quoted a more up-to-date authority, Martha and The Van- dellas: ""Summer's here and the time is right,'' he said of the day when the Supreme Court went cyberpunk.

The House of Sin contains sexually oriented adult material intended for individuals 18 years of age or older. If you are not 18, if adult material offends you, or if you are accesiing this site from any country or locale where adult meterial is specifically prohibited by law, PLEASE LEAVE NOW!! If you understand and accept these terms you may enter.

PHOTO (COLOR): Torrid zone: Sex on the Net now has the same protection as printed matter. the warning language is from a 'House of Sin' posting; the image is from another explicit Web site.


The Supreme Court concluded its 1996-97 term with a flurry of important and dramatic decisions. Its ruling invloved suicide, sexual predators and religious rights.

1 Breyer 2 Ginsburg 3 Kennedy 4 O'Connor 5 Rehnquist 6 Scalia 7 Souter 8 Stevens 9 Thomas

VOTE: 5 to 4

1 NO 2 NO 3 YES 4 YES 5 YES 6 YES 7 NO 8 NO 9 YES

Enacted in 1993, the Brady gun-control bill required local law-enforcement officials to check the backgrounds of prospective gun buyers. In a strong assertion of states' rights, teh court ruled that Congress can't compel local officials to administer a federal program. The ruling did, however, leave intact a provision requiring a five-day waiting period for gun purchases. The Clinton administration, which had backed the bill, urged local officers to continue the checks until a national background-check system begins operating in 1998. Since 1994, the Justice Department said, checks have blocked the sale of 186,000 illegal guns.

VOTE: 5 to 4

1 NO 2 NO 3 YES 4 YES 5 YES 6 YES 7 NO 8 NO 9 YES

Leroy Hendricks was sent to a Kansas hospital for the criminal mentally ill after serving nearly 10 years in prison for molesting two 13-year-old boys. He contended that his continuing incarceration amounted to double jeopardy. But the court upheld the Kansas sexual-predator law, ruling that Hendricks fell into a category of people "unable to control their dangerousness." His second confinement the court said, was not punishment. Five states have similar statues.

VOTE: 7 to 2

1 NO 2 YES 3 YES 4 YES 5 YES 6 YES 7 YES 8 NO 9 YES

The court rejected a challenge to a new law giving the president authority to veto individual provisions of spending bills. But it did so on narrow grounds--because the plaintiffs, four congressmen and a former member, had no standing to challenge the law since they did not suffer personal injury. Clinton has promised to use the new power soon. An individual or group that loses federal money or benefits as a result of a line-item veto is expected to attack the law again.

VOTE: 5 to 4

1 NO 2 NO 3 YES 4 YES 5 YES 6 YES 7 NO 8 NO 9 YES

Lowering the wall between church and state, the court said it was legal for public school to send teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial classes--a practice that had been barred for 12 years. The ruling comes at a time when many communities are considering whether religious organizations should be given public money to help solve social problems.

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