High Court to Rule on Internet Censorship

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Sandy Rapp

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Supreme Court is expected to decide soon on the constitutionality of an unwise law that claims its intent is to protect minors but which actually endangers women.

At issue is censorship on the Internet. The question before the court is whether it is permissible for the government to limit the explicit content available to children without infringing on the free speech rights of adults.

The current case before the court arises from a quest by conservatives to establish a “national standard” against which Internet materials may be deemed “harmful to minors.”

The Child Online Protection Act, signed into law in 1998, would punish online commercial online distributors of material deemed “harmful to minors” with up six months in jailand a $50,000 fine.

The law is being challenged by groups from obstetricians to booksellers. These opponents of the law are often painted by its supporters as “pro child pornography.” But, the use of minors in pornographic materials is already very illegal.

Second Time Internet Censorship Laws before The Supreme Court

This showdown before the Supreme Court is the second in a continuing conflict over access to information on the Internet. In 1997, the United States Supreme Court unanimously rejected an almost identical provision of a proposed communications act. This decision sided with The American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the AIDS Education Global Information System to reject a provision of the Communications Decency Act that had limitations similar to the law now under scrutiny.

These groups argued successfully that it is both unwise and unconstitutional to sanitize from the Internet all information conservatives deem unfit for minors. Some of those groups are parties in the current suit before the Supreme Court.

Even as the ink dried on that historic free speech telecommunications decision, Ohio Republican Congressman Michael Oxley redrafted a nearly identical piece of legislation, the act now before the High Court. This legislation again seeks to amorphously criminalize Internet transmission of all materials deemed “harmful to minors.”

This loose definition of what is illegal speech recurs throughout U.S. history, with the persistent result of dangerously empowering local authorities and cautious government bureaucrats to suppress as “indecent” all information concerning human sexuality and reproductive health, including abortion and birth control.

In the U.S., 80 percent of all teen-age pregnancies are unplanned. And the rate of sexually transmitted diseases continues to rise dramatically among teen-age girls, as does the rate of AIDS in women over 50. Any impediment to delivering information to women, especially pre-teen women, heightens their vulnerability to unwanted pregnancy and symptom-less sexually transmitted diseases and may compromise their health for their lifetime.

And, Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, says, “Without access to information, it is harder for women to know what is healthy and normal and what is a problem.”

Alexander Sanger, chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, says that women and teens often use the Internet to obtain accurate and vital information in total privacy. He adds that Planned Parenthood sites have been blocked by some libraries and schools because administrators simply barred any site that used the word “sex.”

Censorship Limits Positive Information about Being Lesbian

At the same time, the law attempts to limit information on the Internet, it would also limit the very real need for young people to ask questions about homosexuality, and even restrict their access to positive gay role models.

The lesbian and gay-male community is, in itself, considered “indecent” by many conservatives, a phenomenon responsible for a history of gay invisibility. Despite the number of recent “outings” and growing political clout of lesbians and gays, the silence surrounding lesbian and gay-male youth is still pervasive and leaves young gays isolated and unaware of current psychological and medical information that would assure them their orientation is neither a disorder nor an illness.And such silences, wrought by repression official and otherwise, cause enormous harm. Silence-induced ignorance about sexual orientation manifests in a gay youth suicide rate that is three times higher than the non-gay incidence. Other fatalities proceed from the repression of gay-related AIDS education.

Existing software screening makes it possible for parents to control viewing absent censorship laws. And what this type of software screens out well illustrates the danger of placing similar tools in government hands. For example, the March 1997 newspaper for the National Organization for Women reported its Web site had been blocked by a screening device banning “homosexuality/transgender sites.”

Could teen historians be barred from reading independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report on President Bill Clinton’s extracurricular activities? This is quite possible, given the explicit language in the report. Could passages in the Bible be barred as well? And perhaps even Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” could become unavailable. School boards have heard arguments that the play depicts indecent child sex.

Conservatives’ focus on the tiny percentage of explicit Internet material loosely classified as “pornography” endangers free expression, the primary means through which civil liberties have been maintained.

It is vital that the Supreme Court continues to protect Americans from the congressional conservatives and ill-conceived laws such as the Child Online Protection Act.

Sandy Rapp is a feminist singer and author of “God’s Country: A Case Against Theocracy.” She is a founding member of Feminists For Free Expression. Rapp’s books and CDs are available at Amazon.com.

For more information:

Center for Democracy and Technology
Title XIV-Child Online Protection, October 23, 1998:
http://www.cdt.org/legislation/105th/speech/copa.html

Internet Free Expression Alliance:
http://www.ifea.net/joint_statement_9_98.html

American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network
“Supreme Court Rules: Cyberspace Will be Free!
ACLU Hails Victory in Internet Censorship Challenge”:
http://www.aclu.org/news/n062697a.html

Feminists for Free Expression (FEE):
http://www.ffeusa.org/bios/rapp.html


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