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A Statement by the American Society of Journalists and Authors

Date: February 8, 1996
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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
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For further information, contact Claire Safran, chair, First Amendment
Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, at 203-227-6271
(e-mail or Sally Wendkos Olds, committee member,
at 516-883-7511 (e-mail



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