Groups Present Evidence In First Challenge to State Cyber-Censorship Law

January 30, 1997 12:00 am

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ATLANTA–In a courtroom hearing this morning on the first-ever challenge to a state Internet censorship statute, a witness will conduct a live tour of the Internet for a federal district judge.

Hans Klein, a professor of technology and public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, will present a guided tour of the Internet to Judge Marvin Shoob of the Northern District Court of Georgia.

A second witness, Patrick Ball of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), will submit testimony by affidavit concerning the need for human rights workers and others to communicate anonymously online.

Prof. Klein is testifying on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, which along with Electronic Frontiers Georgia (EFGA), Georgia State Representative Mitchell Kaye and others, filed a challenge to a Georgia law criminalizing free speech in cyberspace.

The law, which was passed by the Georgia General Assembly last year and became effective on July 1, 1996, provides criminal sanctions of up to 12 months in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine for violations.

Today marks only the third time that an evidentiary hearing has included an online tour in a case challenging an Internet censorship law. The first such “cyber-tour” was conducted before a three-judge panel in federal district court in Philadelphia during ACLU v. Reno, the challenge to the federal Internet censorship law now scheduled for Supreme Court review in March. A second case challenging the same law in a New York court, Shea v. Reno, included a similar Internet tour.

“Despite the explosive growth of the Internet, many people still have not been online and do not fully understand the extraordinarily positive features of this new medium,” said Christopher Hansen, an ACLU national staff attorney.

“When courts are called upon to decide the rules for what one judge called ‘the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed,’ it is especially important that they formulate a clear understanding of the nature of that medium,” he added.

In its brief, the ACLU asserts that the Georgia law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it bars online users from using pseudonyms or communicating anonymously over the Internet. The Act also unconstitutionally restricts the use of trademarked logos as links on the World Wide Web, which allows users to connect to other sites.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, filed on Sept. 24, 1996, the law makes it a crime to use a name that “falsely identifies” a speaker on the Internet, without distinguishing whether the person communicating had any intent to deceive or defraud or simply wanted to keep his or her identity unknown to protect privacy or communicate unpopular views.

“Despite the fact that the Georgia law criminalizes anonymous and pseudonymous communication, the government is now attempting to argue that the law only addresses fraudulent speech,” said J. Scott McClain, a volunteer lawyer for the plaintiffs. “But that’s not how the law was written, and as it stands our plaintiffs face the very real threat of jail or fines for transmitting constitutionally protected speech.”

That distinction is critically important when the persons communicating are transmitting sensitive information, according to Patrick Ball, a senior program associate in the Science and Human Rights Program of the AAAS, based in Washington, D.C..

Mr. Ball, who will be submitting testimony today by affidavit in ACLU v. Miller, assists grassroots human rights groups and truth commissions around the world in setting up computer networks and databases to monitor human rights.

According to his testimony, the organizations Mr. Ball works with often communicate politically volatile communications and would therefore want to remain totally anonymous: “A police officer revealing information about an abusive unit might want to be protected from anyone at all knowing his identity; or the citizen of a very repressive state might not want to risk being accidentally betrayed by a well-meaning international human rights group.”

The need for anonymous communications is just as great for U.S. citizens corresponding with human rights workers in other countries, Mr. Ball said, noting that Georgia is home to the Carter Center in Atlanta, one of the world’s largest human rights and humanitarian organizations.

“It is certain that a large quantity of human rights-related electronic communication is originating or arriving in Georgia,” Mr. Ball’s affidavit states. “If we are to enable people to monitor violations of internationally recognized human rights, we must allow people associated with the Carter Center, and other U.S. citizens, to be able to communicate anonymously in cyberspace.”

In its filings with the court, the ACLU has asked for a preliminary injunction enjoining enforcement of the law. Following today’s demonstration and a review of briefs and affidavits filed by the government and the ACLU, Judge Shoob will either allow additional evidence or rule on the motions before him.

The state has asked the court to dismiss the challenge, claiming that the plaintiffs are not threatened under the law because it only applies to “fraud or misrepresentation.”

Today’s courtroom demonstration was set up with technical assistance from Electronic Frontiers Georgia, a plaintiff in the case. Judge Schoob and Professor Klein will use computer monitors during the “cyber-tour,” while the courtroom audience will follow along via a large-screen projection.

The 14 plaintiffs and organizations named in the ACLU v. Miller are: American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia; The AIDS Survival Project; the Atlanta Freethought Society; Atlanta Veterans Alliance; Community ConneXion; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Electronic Frontiers Georgia; Rep. Mitchell Kaye; Ken Leebow; Bruce Mirken; Bonnie L. Nadri; Josh Riley; John Troyer; and Jonathan Wallace.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs are: J. Scott McClain (as volunteer attorney) of the Atlanta firm of Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore; Ann Beeson and Christopher Hansen of the national American Civil Liberties Union; and Gerald Weber, staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia.

For complete information on the case, visit these online sites: ACLU –, or on AOL, keyword ACLU; and EFGA –

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