The betting among some legal experts is that the Supreme Court will strike down part or perhaps all of the Communications Decency Act on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional violation of free speech. The Clinton administration seems to be poised for that possibility and may not support similarly bad and overarching legislation in the future. If the administration has come to such a conclusion, it’s on the right track at last.
The Communications Decency Act was thrown together by the Congress and signed by President Clinton in an election-year rush as part of a sweeping telecommunications bill. The act was inspired by legitimate parental concern over access that children had to online smut via the Internet. Unfortunately, Congress and the president enacted a blunderbuss law that not only assaulted free speech but also amounted to broad censorship.
Under the act’s provisions, fines of up to $250,000 and two-year prison terms could be meted out to anyone who allowed easy access to what the law vaguely referred to as “indecent” material. Serious work in the arts, medicine and psychological counseling would be threatened.
Two federal appeals court panels have already ruled that the law violates the Constitution’s 1st Amendment protections. And the list of those who oppose the act includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Library Assn., the American Publishers Assn. and many Internet service providers, along with software giants such as Microsoft.
Moreover, laws already on the books can be used to prosecute violations of the law, such as pedophilia and the exchange of child pornography. Also, parents currently have access to many more software programs that can block access to specified sites on the Internet.
Now, a draft of an internal White House report says that unnecessary regulation could cripple the continuing development of the Internet and that it’s better to support industry self-regulation, competing content ratings systems and products that help parents screen what their children view.
The best outcome would be for the Supreme Court to reject the Communications Decency Act and for the Clinton administration and the Congress to realize that a much more cautious approach is warranted.