Year in Review: 1997


Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997


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Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned

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'Decency' law for the Internet is struck down

By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 06/27/97


Civil libertarians and firms
hail ruling on 'Net decency law

In chat rooms,
the buzz was quick applause

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court provided its first guarantee of free speech for the Internet yesterday, issuing a decision that struck down the federal government's attempt to purge cyberspace of ''indecent'' material.

In one of the most closely watched cases of this term, and perhaps one of the most important First Amendment cases to reach the court in 25 years, the justices ruled that families armed with the proper software should choose where children travel in cyberspace - and that the government should not.

The court declared in a 7-2 decision that the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Clinton, was unconstitutional. The law bans ''indecent'' and ''patently offensive'' communications to children.

''The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.

The court said the law had been drawn so broadly that public health warnings, racy comedy routines, great painters' nudes, library card catalogues and serious discussions about censorship, homosexuality, or rape could constitute a felony, punishable by as long as two years in prison. Parents who send their 17-year-old college freshmen information on birth control via e-mail ''could be incarcerated,'' the court said.

''The severity of criminal sanctions may well cause speakers to remain silent, rather than communicate even arguably unlawful words, ideas and images,'' Stevens wrote. ''Given the vague contours of the coverage of the statute, it unquestionably silences some speakers whose messages would be entitled to constitutional protection.''

If in previous broad acts of censorship the government was ''burning the house to roast the pig,'' said Stevens, the decency act, ''casting a far darker shadow over free speech, threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community.''

The Internet is the burgeoning nationwide network of computers that can be tapped with a personal computer and a modem. Among the almost limitless information, there is material that an average family might find offensive and indecent.

President Clinton said that he would study the court's decision and that he would gather authorities representing industry, parents, teachers, and librarians to work on ways to prevent children from viewing on-line pornography. Some blocking software is already on the market.

''With the right technology and rating systems, we can help ensure that our children don't end up in the red light districts of cyberspace,'' Clinton said in a statement.

The decision is expected to have far-reaching effects for developing the Internet, the World Wide Web, e-mail, and other forms of computer communications.

''Today's opinion defines the First Amendment for the next century,'' said David Sobel, counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group here. ''The court has written on a clean slate and established the fundamental principles that will govern free speech issues for the electronic age.''

Marc Pearl, general counsel for the Information Technology Association of America, a high-tech trade group that represents such firms as AT&T, Microsoft, and Netscape, said, ''In the long run, this has a tremendous message of robustness'' for the future of the Internet.

The ruling ''is a kind of guidepost on the information highway that other nations will utilize,'' Pearl said. ''It would have been tremendously hypocritical if the United States, which was producing this new medium, was going to restrict itself by having narrow censorship. What would a China and a France and a Canada do if they saw the US having that kind of content restriction?''

The court, however, left open the possibility that a narrowly tailored law, which kept Internet smut behind electronic barriers as adult magazines are kept from children in convenience stores, might pass constitutional muster. But no such technology exists to ''zone'' the amorphous world of cyberspace, the court concluded. Meanwhile, the justices said, the price in lost freedom was too high to pay with a broad ban.

Even the two justices who dissented, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined with the majority to recognize that parts of the act were unconstitutional.

The case for an intrusive decency act was weakened, said the court, by the growing availability of inexpensive alternatives: search devices or software such as Cyber Patrol or SurfWatch that can be used by families to screen material.

In 1996, the court struck down a Colorado law that required the electronic scrambling of sexually explicit cable television programs, because selective censorship via technology like the ''V-chip'' was available as an alternative. Yesterday, the court concluded that Internet users should not suffer a loss of freedom while the country waits for a technological breakthrough, akin to the V-chip.

''Despite its limitations, currently available user-based software suggests that a reasonably effective method by which parents can prevent their children from accessing sexually explicit and other material which parents may believe is inappropriate for their children will soon be available,'' the court said.

The decency act was Congress's first attempt to regulate the content of the Internet. The transmission of ''obscene'' material was not at issue, because obscenity can be outlawed for both adults and minors.

But the decency act contained two provisions that went beyond the ban on obscenity. One made it a crime to transmit an indecent communication knowing that the recipient was under age. The other made it a crime to send or display material that ''depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive... sexual or excretory activities or organs.''

Internet users could protect themselves from prosecution under the act by taking ''good faith, reasonable'' efforts to restrict access to adult material by minors.

The debate over the case brought together some strange bedfellows. Corporate giants such as Microsoft and America Online joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association to challenge the act.

Arguing on behalf of regulation, the Clinton administration joined conservative, religous, and pro-family organizations such as the Family Research Council.

The case is Reno v. ACLU, 96-511.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 06/27/97.
© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.

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