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"We are willing enough to praise freedom when she is safely tucked away in the past and cannot be a nuisance. In the present, amidst dangers whose outcome we cannot foresee, we get nervous about her, and admit censorship." Even thought E. M. Forster lived over one hundred years before the Communications Decency Act was even proposed, he knew of the reason for its acceptance - fear. The Congress was afraid of the potential problems that could be caused by allowing Americans a new medium where animosity could be freely given. Rather than allowing this, lawmakers introduced a law that would handicap the freedom of speech. An internet provider could be punished for, in the words of the Communications Decency Act of 1996:
any comment, request suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication; or knowingly permits any telecommunications facility under such person's control to be used for an activity prohibited by paragraph (1) with the intent that it be used for such activity, shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
There are several flaws in this section of the Communications Decency Act that are due to the wording of the section itself. The entire section "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards" is not defined enough to give a basis for people to be fined or imprisoned. What is offensive to the "contemporary community?
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President Clinton cannot be entirely blamed for the bill. The Communications Decency Act is a small portion of a larger and needed bill called the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed many different aspects of the way that telecommunications companies must operate across the United States. One example of this is that one company can no longer hold a monopoly over a certain geographical region - GTE cannot be the sole local telephone access provider in Terre Haute. For the most part, the Telecommunications Act is helpful to the American people. (Divens, 46) But the rider, or parasite, proposed by Senator Exon (The Communications Decency Act) is what causes the bill to be so detrimental. Without the power of line-item veto, President Clinton was forced to sign the bill into law with the rider attached. (Cozic, 112)
Senator Jim Exon had reasons for proposing the bill, and tried to accomplish something that would benefit society in the process. His goal through the Communications Decency Act was to prevent minors from gaining access to "indecent" material on the internet. The premise was good as minors do not have access to adult videos or magazines. But, the word indecent itself leads to a problem as people define it in different ways. The Voters Telecommunications Watch, an organization on the internet whose sole purpose is to keep voters informed of the laws that effect them the most, defines indecency as "sexually-explicit material which may be offensive to some or may be considered by some to be inappropriate for children, but which is protected by the First Amendment." The key to their definition is the last phrase "protected by the First Amendment." (CDT, 2) Another source, The American Heritage Dictionary, defines decency as "the state or quality of being unseemly or immodest." Both definitions differ and cause the bill to which they refer to be unclear.
There are many other alternatives that could have been used by Senator Jim Exon to 'help' the youth of America. The government should not be responsible for controlling what minors can view. Most people and many different organizations agree that parents should take responsibility of what their children view. The Voters Telecommunications Watch, in their article Frequently Asked Questions about the Communications Decency Act, state that:
Parents are the best people to evaluate what they want their children
to see, whereas government censors are probably the least appropriate.
In _Wisconsin_v._Yoder_ (1972), the Supreme Court acknowledged that the right of parents to determine what is appropriate for their children is
They are not suggesting that parents sit beside their children every time they are
using the home computer. There are several software programs on the market that safely prevent children from viewing certain material on the Internet while allowing the parents to view anything. The parents have total control over what their children can view. Products such as Surf-Watch and Rescue WWW are made solely for that purpose. They check a constantly updated list on the World Wide Web to find what sites are acceptable for America's youth. The identification of a problem by Senator Exon is notable, but the solution he proposed is not acceptable. (Statement, 1)
Many different organizations and groups of people have offered opposition to the Communications Decency Act. There have been several different days of protest by the Internet community as a whole. One such protest was sponsored by the Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW) and was called the National Day of Protest. A bulletin about the protest from the VTW states that:
Are 20,000 phone calls a lot? 30,000? 50,000? They are if you're one of a handful of Congressional staffers trying to field them. Tuesday, December 12th was the Internet's Day of Protest. A variety of net-activists and telecommunications-related services exhorted the on-line community to call a selected group of Senators and Representatives to declare their opposition to the threat of Internet censorship. And call they did.
Another protest performed by the internet community was the Forty-Eight Hours of Black Campaign. In a widely e-mailed document about the protest, the CDT, another private consumer watch organization, urged Americans to join the protest:
Help demonstrate the extent of the impact of the Internet Censorship legislation. Join Hundreds of thousands of Internet Users in an
International protest for 48 hours after Clinton Signs the bill on Thursday 2/8/96 at 11am EST by turning your web page black. The Black Campaign.
There is one protest that is continuing and will continue until the threat of internet censorship is nonexistent. The Blue Ribbon Campaign, sponsored by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, is best described in the Introduction of the Blue Ribbon Campaign by the Electronic Freedom Foundation:
A blue ribbon is chosen as the symbol for the preservation of basic civil rights in the electronic world. EFF and other civil liberties groups ask that a blue ribbon be worn or displayed to show support for the essential human right of free speech. This fundamental building block of free society, affirmed by the U.S. Bill of Rights in 1791, and by the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has been sacrificed in the 1996 Telecom Bill. The blue ribbon will be a way to raise awareness of these issues, from locally to globally, and for the quiet voice of reason to be heard. The voice of reason knows that free speech doesn't equate to sexual harassment, abuse of children, or the breeding of hatred or intolerance. We insist that any material that's legal in bookstores, newspapers, or public libraries must be legal online.
There are also numerous court cases challenging the Communications Decency Act that are scheduled to appear in court later in the year. The Supreme Court of the United States is also scheduled to check the constitutionality of the bill towards the end of 1996. (Williams, 22-75)
Censorship in any form is wrong and cannot be allowed by the American public to continue. The Communications Decency Act clearly violates the rights of Americans. Therefore, the citizens of the United States of America must take a stand to protect their basic rights as guaranteed to them by the Bill of Rights. As William Shakespeare once said in Sonnet 66, "Words are made tongue-tied by authority."