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The decency-act war

This newspaper does not use four-letter words to grab readers’ attention or make a dramatic point. There is no law that says these pages can’t be strewn with raw language; it’s just not our style.
What would happen if we did use such language, say, in an editorial? Some readers might be offended.
However, if the same editorial appeared in the Business Journal’s Daily Edition on the Internet, the consequences could be much more severe–two years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
That’s the maximum penalty allowed by the Communications Decency Act. Enacted in February as part of the telecommunications-law overhaul, the act prohibits posting of “obscene” or “indecent” material on areas of interactive computer services that might be viewed by minors.
Given the nature of the technology, that means practically anywhere on the Internet.
The law was passed over the protests of free- speech supporters and new-media representatives, who argued that it was much too broad in scope. They lost that battle, but the war is not over.
Two separate federal judicial panels have ruled that the act violates the Constitution. In June, three judges in Philadelphia backed a challenge to the statute filed by nearly 60 groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Microsoft Corp.; on Monday, a panel in New York City similarly backed a case brought by the editor of a daily Internet newspaper.
While the rulings differed in some respects, both held that Internet publishers are entitled to at least the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by print newspapers and magazines.
The decency act uses the model of broadcast regulation. But the federal judges drew an important distinction, noting in the latest case that “indecent material on the Internet ordinarily does not assault the user without a warning.”
The two decency-act cases almost certainly are headed for the nation’s highest court, possibly as early as September. While the outcome is not guaranteed, the strong stance taken by two federal panels does not bode well for the new law.
Children deserve protection from pornography, but software filters–and, of course, parental control–can accomplish that end without doing damage to constitutional rights.

— Rochester Business Journal


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