Date: February 8, 1996 + + + + + + + The American Society of Journalists and Authors is deeply concerned over the recent passage by the United States Congress of the telecommunications bill. This law does two things that are inimical to the protection of free speech as provided by the Constitution of the United States. First, it bans forms of speech, like pornography and "indecency," that have no legal definition. Thus, it is an unconstitutionally vague attack on the First Amendment. Then, it sets a new precedent by putting the imprimatur of the federal government on censorship. A clearly unconstitutional amendment added to the bill at the last minute prohibits any discussion of abortion on the Internet. This not only interferes with citizens' rights to obtain information on a legal medical procedure, but would also prohibit discussion of a legitimate public social issue, a subject that is--and should continue to be--openly debated by candidates for public office. In protest of this move and of other infringements on free speech, we make the following statement. The Internet, by its very nature, poses wider possibilities and also greater risks to free speech than have yet existed in any other medium of communication. With its ability to carry a mutiplicity of information to virtually any corner of the world, and to carry that information within seconds, the Internet has aroused considerable concern. Some worry about unsuitable content reaching the wrong people -- and others worry that the worriers are too ready to put in jeopardy the protection of speech afforded by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The American Society of Journalists and Authors, the nationwide organization of independent nonfiction writers, is deeply concerned with efforts from various quarters to restrict speech on online information networks. Many of those who would curtail the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech may be motivated by worthy aims. They say they want to protect children from reading messages with sexual or violent content, or from being exploited through child pornography, or they want to eliminate messages that preach hate and prejudice and that encourage violence against certain groups. Yet throughout history, the censorship of unpopular expression has never succeeded in bringing about a better society -- even when that epression is widely believed by people of good will to be distasteful, demeaning, even despicable. This, of course, is the kind of expression that is suppressed. No one tries to silence innocuous speech. But if we do not protect the speech that we abhor, we cannot protect the speech that will keep us free. As writers, ASJA members believe in the power of speech. We also believe that the best way to combat odious speech is by countering it with wise speech. As a society, we need to have faith in the good sense of our citizenry to shop astutely in the marketplace of ideas. The communications bill just passed by Congress bans "lewd" communications on the Internet, as well as on TV and cable services. The problem, of course, is what constitutes lewdness and who is to decide. What one person would consider indecent, another might deem educational, inspiring, beautiful -- or simply foolish. The principles underlying the First Amendment maintain that it is up to each adult to determine what to read or view. Another free-speech concern on the Internet is the prevalence of neo-Nazi and other propaganda and literature designed to foment and spread hatred against members of targeted groups. Again, such content offends our sensibilities, as it does those of all people of good will. But who is to draw the line between legitimate political expression and speech that would undermine the rights of those in the scapegoated groups? Because the Internet is available to any child with access to a computer and because it may often be desirable to limit young children's access to sexual, racist, violent or other inappropriate content, special attention must be paid to their needs. But the way to do this is not to limit communications services to carrying only information suitable for youngsters. Children can be safeguarded through devices and/or software that will allow parents to restrict online services and internet areas that their children can visit. Aside from such technological options, parental concerns can be met best by parents spending time with their children and sharing their ideas and values so that the children will be better prepared to make their own decisions as they mature. Recently, CompuServe Information Services has been threatened with sanctions, or even arrest, by representatives of a Task Force set up by the Bavarian Minister of the Interior at the police headquarters in Munich, Germany. The Task Force planned to investigate alleged pornographic Usenet sections. Even before the Bavarian officials completed their investigation or took any legal action, CompuServe officials volunteered to expunge a long list of newsgroups frm its service, without doing its own investigation on which, if any, of these groups did in fact offer the kind of content the Task Force objected to. Although the Task Force does not represent Germany's national department of justice, which has not yet ruled on the responsibility of carriers for the content carried on their services, CompuServe officials have expressed fears of sanctions coming from other quarters. We are heartened by the fact that officials at CompuServe are now searching for a solution that will protect free speech while respecting laws in the various countries it serves. The First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors offers its services to CompuServe and to other communications carriers in arriving at a reasonable resolution of the issue. + + + + + + + + For further information, contact Claire Safran, chair, First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, at 203-227-6271 (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sally Wendkos Olds, committee member, at 516-883-7511 (e-mail email@example.com).
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