Spawn of CDA: New Internet Censorship Bills Slither Through Senate

March 12, 1998 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee today approved two bills that reconstruct the unconstitutional provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act and remove power from parents and local communities to decide how to help children use the Internet safely.

The American Civil Liberties Union dubbed the bills “spawn of CDA,” saying in a letter to the committee that the proposals fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in ACLU v. Reno and will restrict protected speech on the Internet.

Ignoring these warnings, the Commerce Committee passed Senate Bill 1619, the Internet School Filtering Act, by a unanimous voice vote. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, requires all public libraries and schools that receive federal funds for Internet access to use blocking software.

The second bill, S. 1482, was sponsored by Senator Dan Coats, R-IN. Dubbed “Son of CDA,” its thrust is identical to the ill-fated Communications Decency Act, which was unanimously overturned last year by the United States Supreme Court in Reno v ACLU. The lone dissenter in that voice vote was Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, who criticized the “one-size-fits-all Washington approach” to regulating the Internet.

“We are beyond Son of CDA and well into spawn of CDA,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Legislative Counsel on cyberspace issues for the ACLU’s Washington National Office.

“Lawmakers continue to ignore the technological realities and constitutional problems with these bills,” Nojeim added. “Congress is obviously enjoying the free political ride these bills provide, with little thought for the taxpayers who will ultimately pay the price when the courts strike them down.”

In a letter sent yesterday to the Senate Committee, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation outlined their objections to the bills. Addressing the Internet Filtering Act, the groups said, “Blocking software restricts access to valuable, protected online speech about topics including safe sex, AIDS and even web sites posted by religious groups such as the Society of Friends and the Glide United Methodist Church.”

The letter also emphasized that “parents and teachers, not the government, should provide minors with guidance about accessing the Internet.”

The Coats bill, which attempts to narrow the CDA’s restrictions to speech that is “harmful to minors,” is also unconstitutional, the groups said, because such speech is “unquestionably protected by the Constitution when communicated among adults.”

The bill also “fails to make any distinction between material that may be harmful to a six-year-old but valuable for a 16-year-old, such as safer-sex information,” the ACLU and EFF said.

The Commerce Committee was clearly unmoved by these criticisms.

Commenting on the “First Amendment problems” with the Coats bill, a Congressional aide remarked that “we can address those at a later time.” Similarly, Sen. Ernest Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina and a co-sponsor of the bill, urged the committee to “just vote on it because we’ve had it on our hands a long time.”

Senator McCain was equally unswayed by local control arguments raised by Senator Conrad Burns, R-MT. He refused to allow any amendments that would permit communities to decide whether schools or libraries could use alternative to blocking software even though many localities may not wish to use such clumsy and ineffective programs.

During committee debate, Burns noted that many schools and libraries already have developed policies that address Internet abuse problems without using filtering devices.

Federal lawmakers are not the only politicians jumping on the censorship bandwagon, the ACLU said. In the last three years, at least 25 states have considered or passed Internet censorship laws. But however popular the laws may seem, they do not hold up well to constitutional scrutiny. Federal district courts in New York, Georgia and Virginia have found Internet censorship laws unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds in challenges brought by the ACLU.

And in its June 1997 landmark ruling in Reno v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal CDA, saying that it placed an “unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech” that “threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community.”

“When the Court struck down the CDA, we anticipated that members of Congress would renew their attempts at Internet censorship,” Nojeim said. “But no matter how many bills are spawned from this ill-fated and unconstitutional legislation, the ACLU stands ready to stamp them out.”

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