ACLU Tells Committee That New Internet Law Blocks Protected Speech and Should Itself Be Blocked

April 4, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union told a House subcommittee this morning that a controversial Internet blocking measure contains significant constitutional pitfalls and predicted that these shortcomings would sap intellectual freedom from the nation’s libraries if the law is allowed to go into effect.

“The First Amendment is part of the foundation of our society and a bedrock of our principles. Emasculating the First Amendment under the banner of protecting our children teaches children our principles are a hollow shell, to be cast aside when they seem inconvenient,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “One can almost watch their moral compasses spin.”

Johnson testified before the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which called today’s hearing to examine the merits of the new Internet blocking law. The blocking legislation was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton last December. The ACLU filed a lawsuit last month in federal district court in Philadelphia against the new legislation.

In his testimony, Johnson said that blocking technology required by Congress does not work. As proof, he offered several recent examples that demonstrate filtering software’s inability to distinguish between obscenity and constitutionally protected speech. Johnson cited a March 2001 Consumer Reports test that found that blocking software will, in fact, fail to recognize obscene material at least 20 percent of the time and will interpret constitutionally protected material as objectionable as much as 63 percent of the time.

Johnson also raised the question of the law’s exacerbation of the already significant “digital divide.” According to the testimony, people with means will be able to avoid the harmful effects of the new law by using their own computers, while the economically disadvantaged will find themselves unable to access crucial, constitutionally protected material because of overly ravenous blocking software.

“The government is choking off the free flow of information on the Internet to the library patrons who need it the most,” Johnson said. “We fully expect the courts to overturn this constitutional briar-patch of a law.”

Johnson’s testimony can be found online at: /node/21094 A special feature on the ACLU case, including links to legal documents, special reports and other background, is online at /node/22529.

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