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What's indecent on the Internet,
and who should decide?


On-line debate rages as lawsuit goes to court

March 21, 1996
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EST

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- A landmark case involving the content of the Internet goes before a panel of federal judges Thursday.

A coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Communications Decency Act, which was signed into law last month.


At issue is pornographic content on the Internet, and how or if it should be regulated. The new law forbids the distribution to minors of obscene or indecent material through the Internet or on-line services. Violators could be fined as much as $250,000 or sentenced to two years in prison.

As the expected monthlong hearing gets under way, the three judges will see for themselves what is on the Internet.

Indecent vs. obscene

The Communications Decency Act is part of a broader telecommunications reform law approved by President Clinton on February 8. The ACLU filed its lawsuit the same day. (ACLU press release)

A week later, U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter said the U.S. government must define the term "indecent" before it can enforce the law. (Buckwalter's decision)

Opponents say the act is too broad and unenforceable, and violates the First Amendment right of free speech. Indecent content has not been narrowly defined by the courts, as has obscene content, which is held to a strict set of standards.

Provisions in the law banning obscene speech are not being challenged.

  • Explanation of obscenity vs. indecency from the Electronic Frontier Foundation

  • blue ribbon

    The way the case is decided could depend on how the judges treat the Internet as a medium -- is it more like television, or newspapers? Federal law already controls indecency on radio and television, but print content is regulated for obscenity, not the vaguer indecency.

    The federal government contends the provisions are essential to shielding minors, and that computer networks should be more strictly regulated, like television, because young people can easily obtain indecent material from them.

    Debate draws diverse crowd

    An on-line "talk show" dubbed "Cybercensorship: What the 'Bleep' is Going on?" on the eve of the hearing provided a spirited debate over the issue.

    Led by veteran journalist Linda Ellerbee, the diverse panel included the Rev. Jerry Falwell; Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D- Colorado; ACLU president Nadine Strossen; Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who describes himself as a cognitive dissident; and Donna Rice Hughes, former companion to ex-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart who now with "Enough is Enough," an anti-pornography organization.

    Schroeder, Falwell, and Hughes support the law, saying it would make hard-core pornography inaccessible to minors.

    Barlow contend such content is not easily found in cyberspace.

    "It is far easier to access pornography in a 7-11, than it is on the Internet."


    "How do you explain the incredible amount of pedophile activity on-line?" Hughes asked.

    "I don't see it," Barlow responded.

    "Well, we've seen a lot of it," she said.

    "Of course, you're obsessed with it so you're looking for it," he said.

    "To me, it isn't all that complicated to determine what is damaging to children and what is beyond the pale," said Falwell, whose appearance was beamed in from Lynchburg, Virginia.

    Schroeder, a leading liberal in Congress, is taking a less than liberal position on the issue. She explained that "free speech is for adults."

    "Look, what I can understand and what I can deal with is very different than what a 5-year-old can deal with," she said. "We really have to realize that the 5-year-old is better at getting on the Internet than I am."

    Barlow took her to task for voting for the overall telecommunications reform bill in a conference committee.

    "You voted to pass on the conference, and it passed by one vote."

    Schroeder explained that, afterward, when promised hearings on the law did not materialize, she voted against it on the House floor.

    Newspapers against indecency ban

    ACLU President Nadine Strossen, speaking from Chicago, said the law would lay the groundwork -- for better or worse -- for the future of communications technology.

    "We can't allow the government to stifle it now at the beginning. That would be an enormous tragedy."

    Opponents of the act also say there are effective software controls to allow parents to restrict a minor's access to material without imposing general limitations on all of cyberspace.

    The American Newspaper Association said in a brief that the act would hamper the ability of the newspaper industry to develop and offer on-line content, because it would require them to screen content that could legally appear in newspapers, but not on-line.

    America Online, the biggest commercial on-line service that has joined in the lawsuit, said in a court document the law "would effectively reduce on-line content to a level suitable for a child."

    On Thursday, Friday and on April 1, witnesses for plaintiffs in the suit will be subject to cross-examination on testimony submitted in writing to the court.

    Government witnesses are to testify April 11, 12 and 26. A decision by the panel is expected sometime after the final hearing date.

    Reuters contributed to this report.

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