Online Free Speech - Client, Joan Walsh

October 20, 2006
ACLU Defends Free Speech Online >>

Joan Walsh is the Editor-in-chief of Salon.com, an online magazine featuring articles on current events, the arts, politics, the media and relationships.

Salon has been fighting COPA since before I joined the company eight years ago, and I'm proud to continue that tradition, although I'm sorry that we still have to fight at all. The stakes for us are enormous. It's no small feat having amassed an audience of three million readers a month over 11 years, and it's a daily battle to keep them, given the diversity of Internet sites and other media organizations competing for their attention. What keeps Salon drawing new readers is its independence and fearlessness, whether covering torture at Abu Ghraib, the battle over sex education in our schools, or cultural crosscurrents affecting family life, relationships and yes, even sex. We believe Salon's unique blend of breaking news, cultural commentary and user-generated content would be gravely threatened by the provisions of COPA.

Clearly, the question of whether Salon's content could be deemed "harmful to minors" is very subjective. Over the years COPA defenders have used several arguments to show that COPA's harm to Salon would be nonexistent or minimal. According to one line of reasoning, much if not all of our sexually explicit or provocative content can be deemed to have redeeming social value, and thus we'd never face prosecution under the law. Others have argued that our edgy content might well require us to document that our users are over 18 -- but that such requirements would not be burdensome to our business. Both lines of reasoning are wrong.

As Salon's editor in chief, I would of course argue that all of our content, whether sexually explicit or politically controversial, has redeeming social value. But some people would clearly not agree. Under COPA it would only take one U.S. attorney with a different view -- a different view of the social value of stories about young gay men who've had sexual relationships with older men; about elite prostitution businesses; about the wonderful new world of sex toys; or about our nationally renowned archive of hundreds of photos and videos depicting torture and sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib -- for us to face a challenge to our right to publish independent, provocative content, using COPA.

Turning to the other argument of COPA defenders -- that even if COPA required us to create a process to ensure that our readers are indeed over 18, such a requirement wouldn't imperil our business -- we find even more false assumptions. We know that from first-hand experience that creating any barrier to entry depresses traffic, audience growth and ultimately revenue. In 2003 we introduced our "Sitepass" model, in which readers who don't subscribe can read the site for free, if they'll watch a brief ad. Although we know that model helped restore some readership we had lost when we switched to a membership model, we also know it still dampens our traffic -- and thus our advertising revenue. On days when we feature exclusive stories and get a lot of Web traffic and new visitors from other sites, we know that as many as 90 percent of readers who come to read our breaking story fail to click through the initial screen to do so. Clearly, putting up a gate to all Salon visitors, and requiring them to prove they are of legal age to read it would take a big chunk out of our traffic, and cost us the reach and readership we need to attract and retain advertisers.

As the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, I care deeply about protecting children from explicit or exploitive content or images, and I work hard to make sure my child is smart about the way she uses the Internet, the sites she visits and how she communicates with others. That is my job as a parent. I'm proud to have her read Salon -- and she and her friends do read it. Whether other minors should read Salon is a question for their parents, not the government. I'm proud to join the ACLU's challenge to this intrusive law.

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