Note: This page was written in February of 1996. Some time afterwards, a Federal court ruled that the original Communications Decency Act mentioned here was unconstitutional. The debate is not over, however, and new legislation is introduced from time to time that attempts to limit free speech on the Internet.
Legislation recently signed into law makes it illegal for US citizens to be "indecent" online. In response, thousands of people are joining the Blue Ribbon Campaign for free speech on the Internet.
In the spirit of free speech, I want to express my own feelings about, well, free speech:
The government has no right or responsibility to regulate speech on the Internet. I'll say a bit more about that later, but first you should know where I'm coming from.
Free speech is everyone's right, but I do not advocate wanton speech. True, we must not allow the government to take responsibility for our thoughts or our speech, but that does not mean you can think and speak irresponsibly without consequence.
We also have the right to dislike irresponsible speech, and speak against it. If nothing else, irresponsible speech can make others dislike you. (You might view this as desirable.) For an example, the following are some modes of speech and thought that lower my own opinions of others.
I dislike people who curse injudiciously: people who can't speak more than a few meaningful syllables in public without tossing in an offensive word. Casual use of forceful language reduces its effect both on the listener and the speaker. When such people really do get angry, how can they vent their feelings, except through violence?
I dislike people who advocate hate: people who are so insecure in society that they want to join with "people like us" to isolate and confront "people like them," when the division between "us" and "them" is based on arbitrary genetic or ancestral characteristics instead of individuals' words and deeds.
I dislike people who judge intrusively: people who deny another's right to life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness because that person doesn't adhere to certain standards of tradition, political thought, or private adult behavior.
I dislike people who advocate abuse: people who pretend it's OK to mulct gain or pleasure from others without fair compensation. In particular, I abhor those who seek pleasure at the expense of a child's innocence, because for that there can be no compensation.
But I must accept people's right to free speech, no matter how I dislike them. The right of free speech is no such thing if it only applies to people with whom I agree.
Do not think that free speech is a license for free action! When violent speech turns to violent acts, the law provides for punishment. When isolation and hate turn to sedition and war, the law provides for suppression. When a person is publicly wronged because of private affairs, the law provides for redress. And when some loathsome creature endangers a child's health or innocence, I certainly hope we can find a way to protect the child without endangering free speech!
Parents can protect their children. Granted, it isn't necessarily as easy to protect children's innocence on the Internet as it is to keep them out of strip joints, but you can use filters like Cyber Patrol and Net Nanny to keep smut from simply spewing into their astonished eyes.
Filters might not withstand concerted efforts to find filth, but once children are mature enough and curious enough to peek past the filter, are they all that innocent? By that time, a parent is probably in a better position to guide the Internetting child (who at least is still in the house) than one who is scanning a friend's Dad's Playboy in a treehouse down the street!
[MB 28 September 2006--When I wrote the previous paragraph, I had no idea how vulnerable children would become to predators on the Internet. I had in mind natural adolescent curiosity about material with consenting adult subjects. The right of free speech must not be construed to allow content that exploits children, or seeks to lure them into exploitation.]
However difficult it is, we must find a way to protect both children and free speech. Precedent is powerful, and government inconstant. If we let the government ban "indecency" today, what topics might be censored by later legislatures; politics? history? We cannot hope to make wise decisions without access to conflicting accounts of fact and opinion. This necessary discourse, still protected in print, is already fettered in broadcast radio and television; in spite of constitutional objections.
The Internet is not radio! The government claims that radio is a pervasive intrusion upon privacy, and therefore must be regulated in ways that are clearly unconstitutional in other media. Valid or not, the reasons for regulating radio do not apply to the Internet.
If we hinder free speech on the Internet, we will destroy the most empowering tool for public discourse that has ever been available to mankind. Because of the Internet, each of us can now be the very "lone pamphleteer" whom the First Amendment authors sought to protect. Now each of us can submit our ideas and opinions to public review: not just to a few friends and neighbors, but to the entire world. And the entire world in turn can respond to our ideas as it sees fit: with derision or acclaim, but above all, I hope, with freedom!