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Pornography, Free Speech, and the Internet

July 7th, 2007

This is an essay that discusses some of the issues in the debate over Internet freedom as it relates to free speech and public fears about “obscene” content. It was originally written for my brother’s English class but is actually a collaborative work of a few family members who worked as editors and ghostwriters. The essay is a few years old and now seems somewhat dated, but the central issues are still relevant for Internet users today. If anyone has recent updates to the information presented here, please feel free to add this in the comment section. Note that you can now preview your comments before posting, allowing you to clean up misspellings, typos, or other embarrassing errors before they are actually published.

The U.S. Constitution is again under inspection regarding a problem that will affect millions of us in the coming years. Unfortunately, the astonishing growth of the Internet and its accompanying popularity has not gone unnoticed by those groups of people who would like to dictate what is best for all. Debate over free speech on the Internet has generated intense arguments on both sides of the issue. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Internet is the free flow of ideas and exchange of information. People everywhere, many for the first time, are able to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions on any subject. This new found ability also may represent the first time that an issue of such significance personally touches and affects so many people. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press and speech. One of the most basic rights in this country, a right many have given their lives to protect, must remain as the original framers of the Constitution intended. One of the first attempts to limit freedom of speech on the Internet focused on protecting minors from obscene and indecent material. The cherished right to freedom of speech must come first - even over such an admirable and innocent goal as protecting our children from possible pornographic material.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution officially became law in 1791. The words seemed clearly stated: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” Yet, from the very beginning, the First Amendment came under challenge. Through the years, the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment have come under repeated assault. The latest debate centers on freedom of speech and the Internet. In 1996, the Communication Decency Act became law as Section 507 of the sweeping telecommunications legislation now known as the Telecommunications Act. President Clinton signed the Bill on February 8, 1996. This law purported to protect minors from obscene material. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) imposed penalties on anyone who makes, creates, solicits, and transmits “any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under eighteen years of age.” Those found guilty under the law could receive prison sentences up to two years and a maximum fine of $250,000. The CDA has several problems. The most important lies in its inherent restriction of the freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution. Fortunately, the first ill-fated attempt at Internet censorship, the Communication Decency Act, was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 1997 (Macavinta). Yet, this first effort at Internet regulation intensified the current argument over what role, if any, the government should have concerning this new and increasingly popular form of communication.

Indeed, the government has in mind to protect all citizens, particularly children, from the words and images of pornography. However, a big problem over the regulation of the Internet remains the unclear definitions of obscenity and pornography. What group or individual will decide what is best for all? A dangerous path lies ahead once we embark
on that slippery slope. What art or topic will next offend? Restricting the use of the Internet will result in the limitation of chat room conversations, emails, as well as voice communications and, therefore, go against the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Legitimate topics, such as abortion, gay rights, rape counseling, AIDS information, and birth control, may be restricted due to the broad sweep of any governmental regulation. Thomas Jefferson, considering the definition of obscenity, said, “Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched?” (Hentoff 284).

Yet another problem or reason against regulation and in favor of free speech centers on the fact that governmental regulation of the Internet would be unenforceable. The United States cannot impose its will or laws on the rest of the world. The Internet, as a worldwide medium, cannot be policed by the United States. To police and license legitimate material on the Internet would not only be impossible, but also make the Internet unworkable by crippling the speed of access. Is this country, sometimes considered the best example of freedom in the world, fated to become a country which outlaws what people write, draw, say or, perhaps, even think?

Some reasonably argue that the Internet must be regulated so that minors are not subjected to indecent and grotesque material. Proponents suggest access to web pages by authorization through a credit card or agreement to a posted warning. Neither would stop minors from accessing any site, but would slow down considerably the access time on the Internet. Historical examples demonstrate that at times the interests of children do indeed take precedent over First Amendment rights guaranteed to adults. For example, children aged seventeen or younger are restricted from certain movies. Some magazines cannot be sold to minors, and television agrees to some censorship guidelines. However, most historical laws protecting children do not take away or limit the rights of adults. Stopping children under age eighteen from viewing certain movies does not interfere with the adult’s right of access. Banning the sale of printed material to minors also does not restrict an adult’s right of expression. Regulation of the Internet, though, would restrict rights guaranteed to adults.

Although the people who want to stop pornography on the Internet have good intentions, their arguments remain weak. Some claim that television remains easier for parents to monitor, but that parents need the government’s help in monitoring Internet access of their children. This claim is false. The current software, available for $30-$50, allows parents to pre-set what their children may or may not access (Munro 191). Most major online providers, such as AOL (America Online), also allow parents to select certain restrictions for one child and different restrictions for another child (Sabludowsky E1). Each child accesses the service through his/her individual password, which in turn allows the pre-selected choices. The technology exists for parents to monitor their children’s use of the Internet.

Our country was founded by people who understood what can happen as individual freedoms are taken away one piece at a time. Benjamin Franklin remarked, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (Bartlett 422). The government needs to leave the First Amendment alone and let parents make decisions for their children. The precious right of free speech, the cloudy definition of “obscene”, and the worldwide nature of this thrilling, unique medium must prevent any and all attempts of governmental regulation. Instead, the Internet must represent the freedom of our country. As tempting as regulation may at first seem - especially for the noble cause of protecting our children – ‘Big Brother’ looms dangerously close.

Works Cited

Bartlett, John. Barlett’s Familiar Quotations. Boston: Little, Brown, and
Company, 1968.

Hentoff, Nat. The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in
America. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980.

Macavinta, Courtney. “High Court Rejects CDA.” http://www.news.com/
SpecialFeatures/0,5,11937,00.html (28 June 1997)

Munro, Kathryn. “ Solid Oak Hardware: Cybersitter 97; Parental Filtering
Utilities.” PC Magazine 24 Mar. 1998: 191.

Sabludowsky, Stephen. “Child Protection Internet Tools Keep Unwanted
Images Out of the Picture at Home.” The Times-Picayune 11
Mar. 1999: E1.



2 Responses to “Pornography, Free Speech, and the Internet”

  1. comment number 1 by: Frequent reader

    One of my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson bears repeating: “Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched?”

  2. comment number 2 by: Nick

    Its Genius! You (all) hit some incredibly convincing points. Showing some in depth critical thinking, this is one hell of an english essay. Thanks

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