Free Speech and the Communications Decency Act

As part of a massive telecommunications bill, Congress passed (and President Clinton signed), the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA criminalized "indecent speech". On June 26, 1997 the United States Supreme Court overturned the CDA by upholding a unanimous Appeals Court decision overturning the law. This page summarizes the Appeals Court and Supreme Court rulings.

As it became apparent that the CDA would be overturned, the Clinton administration stated, through back channels to the press, that Clinton knew that the law was unconstitutional, but only signed it because it was an election year and he did not want to appear "soft on pornography". Such cynicism makes me grateful for the wisdom of the authors of the Constitution in establishing a strong federal judiciary that protects us from the excesses of politicians.

Article 1 of the Bill of Rights (commonly known as the First Amendment)

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Of all the limitations on government power, this is the one that I value the most. A free press guarantees all our other freedoms. As a voracious reader, I do not want anyone telling me what I can and cannot read. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if an idea is bad, then publishing it will only expose it to criticism, if an idea is good, then the public benifits by seeing it in print. While I do believe that there should be libel laws for material published about private citizens, I believe that there should be no restrictions on fiction and few restrictions when it comes to public figures.

Appeals Court grants injunction against enforcement of the CDA

On June 11, 1996, the federal appeals court in Philadelphia granted a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA was passed by congress as part of the telecommunications bill. The CDA attempts to place many of the same censorship restrictions on the Internet that exist for public broadcasting. The CDA was heavily backed by the Christian Right and its passage has been hailed as a victory by them.

The Appeals Court ruling was unanimous (3 to 0) in favor of granting the injunction against enforcement of the CDA. Of particular importance is the wording of the Appeals Court ruling, which was sharply critical of the CDA. The judges recognized that the Internet deserves the same protections afforded books and periodicals. The judges educated themselves about the Internet and provided a well thought out and well reasoned (though wordy) opinion. In injoining the CDA, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals showed the American legal system at its best, just as congress, in passing the CDA, showed politics at its worst. The edited highlights of the Appeals Court CDA ruling are provided here. The full text of the ruling is posted on a number of Internet sites, including Voter's Telecommunications Watch..

The Supreme Court Overturns the Communications Decency Act in a 7-2 Majority, June 26, 1997

In a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court rejected the Clinton administration's arguments upholding the CDA. The two dissenting votes (Justices O'Connor and Rehnquist) dissented only in part, making the vote virtually unanimous. While the Supreme Court decision is not as inspiring a piece of writing as the Appeals Court decision, it catagoricly refutes each of the governments arguments for the CDA. Authoring the majority opinion, Justice Stevens writes:

We agree with the District Court's conclusion that the CDA places an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech, and that the defenses do not constitute the sort of "narrow tailoring" that will save an otherwise pat- ently invalid unconstitutional provision. In Sable, 492 U. S., at 127, we remarked that the speech restriction at issue there amounted to "`burn[ing] the house to roast the pig.'" The CDA, casting a far darker shadow over free speech, threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community.

In response to the governments argument that censoring the Internet will promote its development, Justice Stevens writes

We find this argument singularly unpersuasive. The dramatic expansion of this new marketplace of ideas contradicts the factual basis of this contention. The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal. As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a demo- cratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.

An HTML version of this Supreme Court decision is available form Cornell. A text version is available here.

As a long time fan of William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, I was amused to see the term "cyberspace", which Gibson invented in Neuromancer, used repeatedly in the Supreme Court decision. Perhaps this Supreme Court decision will also overturn the idea that science fiction is not literature.

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