The US Supreme Court begins to hear evidence this week in what some are calling the first free speech case of the 21st century ? a case that will have global ramifications for internet censorship laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition ? a group led by the American Library Association (ALA) and backed by Microsoft and America Online ? will square up to the might of the Justice Department in the highest court in the US in a bid to strike down the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
?The future of the internet is at stake in this case,? said Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. ?It must be free, open and accessible to all.?
The CDA ? passed last year as part of wider review of the US telecoms industry ? makes it a federal crime, punishable by two years in jail, for anyone to ?use an interactive computer device? to send or display to a person under 18 years of age any material ?in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards?.
A number of lower courts have declared that the CDA breaches the First Amendment of the US constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. Opponents of the act are concerned that its terminology ? ?indecent? and ?patently offensive? for instance ? is too vague and is open to abuse by ultra-conservative organisations.
Lawyers challenging the CDA will also claim that the global nature of the internet makes it impossible to fully enforce any national censorship legislation. Even if US carriers were banned from hosting certain material, the CDA could not prevent a firm in Amsterdam posting porn on a Web site based in Europe, but accessible from the US.
The CDA could only be effective if other countries introduced similar legislation. One of the fears of the anti-CDA lobby is that a ruling to uphold the act in its present form would give the green light to other legislative bodies, such as those in the EU, to introduce equivalent forms of censorship.
Walter Dellinger, acting solicitor general for the Justice Department, is gambling that the Supreme Court will respond to his often emotive claims that the CDA is needed to protect the morals of the nation?s youth and, if that means impinging on some adult rights in the process, then so be it.
The CDA has been successfully challenged in a Philadelphia lower court and the Su- preme Court is likely to take this into account when it passes judgment in June. If the Justice Department loses the case, it is widely expected to redraft the Act and send it back to Congress for approval. But since the original act was passed into law, Ira Maginizer, President Clinton?s chief internet adviser, has spoken out against the imposition of any new censorship law.
None the less, at a pre-hearing briefing last week, opponents of the act gloomily pre- dicted that the fight would not end with the Supreme Court ruling. ?It is clear that Congress is not going to let this alone,? said one. ?We?ve been told by family groups that if we win this round, there will be another.?
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