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Indecency On The Net

High court ponders the free-wheeling Net

By Anthony Collins/CNN

WASHINGTON (March 19) -- In a case that could produce a landmark free speech decision, the Supreme Court hears arguments today on the government's power to regulate lewd material on the Internet. It's a thorny issue for many families with computer-savvy children.

Maryland schoolgirl Beth Baniszewski loves guinea pigs and uses the family computer to read about them on the Internet.

But her mother worries about other things on the Net, like the pornographic story she stumbled across. "This isn't appropriate for children. It wasn't appropriate for me. This was garbage," said Ellen Baniszewski.

There's a huge amount of sexually explicit material on the Internet, everything from adult magazines to pornographic parodies of Disney characters to hardcore pornography.

That upsets people like Donna Rice Hughes. She once stirred controversy for her romance with married presidential candidate Gary Hart. Now she campaigns against indecency and wants kids protected.

"If it's illegal in print or broadcast to get a Hustler or Penthouse magazine, sell it to a child, distribute it to a child, display it to a child, it should also be criminal in cyberspace," Hughes said.

And it would be criminal, if the Supreme Court upholds a law Congress passed last year. It forbids displaying indecent material on the Internet to anyone under 18.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) is a co-sponsor of the Communications Decency Act, the law now being considered by the Supreme Court. "A lot of material that's available on that computer, easily accessible through that Internet, is material that is totally unsuitable for children," Coats said. "And we think there ought to be some protections that parents can have."

The Clinton Administration agrees, saying restrictions are needed even though much of the Internet is valuable.


"It also has incredible opportunities to put stuff on there that can be damaging, harmful and hurtful, especially to children," said Attorney General Janet Reno.

But the law restricting Internet indecency isn't being enforced. That's because lower courts threw it out as violating free speech. Now the Clinton Administration wants the Supreme Court to reinstate that law.

Critics say restricting sexually explicit material would deprive the Internet of works of art, sex education, medical texts and some songs.

Jerry Berman of the Citzens Internet Empowerment Coalition said: "The commercial, free speech, educational potential of the Internet will be stifled, but we still won't have solved the problem of protecting children from pornography."

Critics claim the law won't work because pornographers can operate overseas beyond U.S. control. Instead of having a law restrict indecency, they argue, parents can block it themselves, using computer programs to screen out what they don't want their kids to see.

But supporters of the law say this method doesn't always work.

Said Hughes: "If you can completely protect your child from getting pornography in your own home via your own personal computer, who's to say that kid isn't going to go next door and get it at the kid next door's home whose parents did not install blocking?"

They say those who put adult material on the Internet should use age-verification to exclude children. But opponents of the law say not everyone who puts material on the Net can afford age-verification methods.

"It's not foolproof," said Berman, who said it would be expensive and keep many adults, businesses and nonprofits off the Internet.

Supporters of the law say it's not that hard to come up with age-verification. Said Coats: "I don't buy the argument that the providers of the sleaze can't be required to put some kind of mechanism into place to make sure that 9-year-old, curious kids aren't accessing some of this material."

Those opposed to the law say fear of prosecution would scare away many people who might want to put sex education information on the Net.

Chris Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union said, "It would be a tragedy for the First Amendment and for this country if valuable speech about sex were unavailable to adults and minors throughout this country and that would be the effect if this law goes into effect."

As the Supreme Court decides how to protect children without violating adult free speech, more than 20 million American users of the Internet like the Baniszewski family are waiting to find out what will and will not be permitted in cyberspace.

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