Decency or Politics?
by John December
It's heartening to hear a panel of judges in U.S. federal court in Philadelphia declare the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional. The three-judge panel, in a unanimous decision, said that that "Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."
However, by resting the demise of the Communications Decency Act squarely on free speech grounds, the judges have taken a weak approach. I've written before about how Communications Decency Act has three major flaws: 1) It is unconstitutional (as the Philadelphia judges upheld); 2) It is unenforcible; and 3) It has no legitimate jurisdiction. Neither the Act's proponents, nor the Philadelphia judges seem able able to get a clue about the last two points. Simply put: the United States government has neither the ability nor the authority to regulate Internet communication.
So why is Clinton's Justice Department planning to appeal the ruling? In a statement in reaction to the Philadelphia court's decision, Clinton said, "our Constitution allows us to help parents by enforcing this Act to prevent children from being exposed to objectionable material transmitted though computer networks." Did Clinton read the court's arguments? Does he remember his oath of office? And why are CDA's proponents continuing their efforts to regulate online communication? Their proposed act would be futile in stopping all manner of Internet content from remaining freely available.
The answer: politics. Clinton and the lawmakers, seeking to "get tough on crime." Their empty posturing may have an affect on voters--many fear the Internet precisely because it can't be controlled. There's a more disturbing implication of this posturing, however: it reflects the frustration the U.S. and other world governments face in regulating the Internet. Futile regulation efforts have lead to strange bed partners: Clinton siding with a conservative U.S. Congress, the U.S. government acting similar to regimes like China in squashing free speech.
Why are Clinton and lawmakers beating up on the constitution just before an election? Does he need to show that he is "tough on crime"? With a remarkable record on economic and international matters, Clinton need not squander his energies and violate his oath of office in order to get re-elected. He should call off his Department of Justice's attack on free speech and show that he, like the framers of the constitution, knows that a people not free to speak are a restless people, ripe for revolution.
John December is editor of CMC Magazine.
Copyright © 1996 by John December. All Rights Reserved.