Monday, March 17, 1997

Week of 03/17/1997

Fair Trade for Free Speech?
Would you be willing to shut up to shut someone else up?
- by David Matthews 2

As I put fingers to keyboard, I know that what I think is the ultimate test of the First Amendment protection of Free Speech will soon begin.

On March 19th, the US Supreme Court will be hearing the challenge of the ACLU and literally thousands of people and businesses against the US Government over the Communications Decency Act. Many observers feel that the majority of nine justices will agree with what six federal judges have already said - that the CDA is blatantly unconstitutional and that the Internet should be given as much protection under the First Amendment as printed material, if not more. I, as a member of the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, certainly hope that is the case.

And yet as I read the Department of Justice’s briefs to the appeal, I am reminded just how ignorant sometimes people in power can be in regards to what free speech is all about. We have Janet Reno and the DoJ saying that adults can speak freely on the Internet, but only if they fork over more money for special ID programs. They attribute it to "keeping the kids out of the room." There is another way - it’s called PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY. But then again, the US government thinks that all parents are idiots and cannot be held responsible for supervising their own kids. Then there’s SOFTWARE that is put into the computer that can keep kids out. But then again, that requires people being RESPONSIBLE, and the US government doesn’t believe it’s own people can be responsible. We can hold a 14-year old responsible for murder, but we can’t fathom that a 30-year old can EVER be responsible for their own kids.

It’s also curious that the DoJ can argue that parental control software like Surfwatch and Cyber-Sitter can’t protect kids, but somehow have impeccable faith in so-called "Age Verification" systems - whose only determination for who is 8 and who is 18 involves a credit card. Doesn’t matter whose card, doesn’t even have to be your own, just as long as it’s valid. Typical US Government response: it only matters if you give MONEY!

Well either way, it’ll boil down to nine judges making that determination for us all, and we only hope that they have enough information and good sense in the Constitution to come to the only right decision, which is to strike down this piece of trash they have the balls to call the "Communications Decency Act."

What worries me, however, is the long list of senators and representatives who are already hammering out what can only be called CDA2 - the NEXT level of censorship should the CDA be declared unconstitutional. These Neo-puritans and the special-interest groups that paid for them want to go through the First Amendment like Freddie Kruger through a high school prom - with bloody blades and a quick repartee for the audience. And I’m wondering if they have the full scope of what censorship really is.

Essentially, censorship is about shutting people up. Now I know there’s some overly pious individual who is eager to E-mail me with the classic "you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater" argument that censorship freaks love to use as the justification for squelching any voice they don’t like. And here’s the rub - the original text is that you can’t FALSELY shout "fire" in a crowded theater. There are laws involving slander and libel. The only problem to these censorship freaks is that it involves their OWN money and their OWN time to get lawyers and file suits. They would much rather have someone ELSE spend money and time on this stuff.

Look, I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of stuff I find offensive out in the real world. I find bland, rehashed, boilermaker network sitcoms offensive. I find pious attitudes by members of the media offensive. I find the Christian Coalition offensive. I find it offensive that we can go to any software or department store and buy a program that can blow people into little pieces in gory graphic detail, but heaven help the guy who wants to buy the Playboy Screen Saver. I find the way politicians twist the laws so that they are exempt from them to be offensive. I find hate groups offensive. I find any group that wants to tell me how to live my life offensive. And yes, there are times when I wish I could get a law passed that would ban such groups from even breathing, much less speaking.

But then I remind myself of a little fact - the First Amendment is an equal-opportunity offender. The right for me to say something that can offend you is the same right for you to say something that can offend me.

So here’s a question for any of you censorship freaks, neo-puritans, and moralists out there: Would you be willing to shut up whatever group offends you if it meant you also lost your right to speak out? If you don’t like Playboy or Penthouse - would you be willing to shut them up forever if it meant that you would also be silenced forever? If you hate the Klu Klux Klan, would you be willing to silence them if it meant you couldn’t speak out on any other issue for the rest of your life?

I think that would be a strong and healthy "NO" I’m hearing out there..

And that’s the point.

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