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Year in Review: 1997

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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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Civil libertarians and firms hail ruling on 'Net decency law

Act's supporters see hope in continuing battle for a law to shield children from pornographic material

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 06/27/97

Civil libertarians and Internet businesses hailed yesterday's Supreme Court ruling striking down the Communications Decency Act. But supporters of the legislation, dubbed CDA, saw a glimmer of hope in the court's support for congressional action to protect minors from sexually explicit materials on the Internet.

''We were obviously disappointed by the decision,'' said retired US Senator Jim Exon, who sponsored the CDA. ''My hope is that thoughtful groups . . . will continue with their efforts to give prosecutors statutes to get at pornographers-for-profit aimed at children.''

''We believe that it is going to expose America's children to the worst kind of pornographic material,'' said Arne Owens, director of communications for the Christian Coalition. ''It's a sad day for our nation.''

Owens vowed to lobby for a new law that could pass constitutional muster. ''We're not going to accept the Supreme Court decision today as the final word.''

The court, in a 7-2 vote, ruled that all of the key parts of the act violated the First Amendment by impinging on otherwise permissible speech among adults.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe called the ruling ''not surprising, and in fact very heartening.'' According to Tribe, ''The law clearly went much too far for its legitimate purpose of protecting children, given that there are ways for the technology to be developed so that parents can be empowered to filter out unwanted materials.''

A leading producer of filtering software, which can be used to screen out information on the 'Net based on preset parameters, praised the decision.

''It's good news for our First Amendment, that's for sure,'' said Susan Getgood, director of marketing for Microsystems Software Inc. in Framingham. ''It underscores what we've always been saying -- that parents should have the choice of what their children can see on the Internet.'' Microsystems makes CyberPatrol, a popular software product that helps block sexually explicit Internet materials.

But Audrie Krause, executive director of NetAction, an Internet political advocacy organization, said conservative groups are trying to force public libraries to use filtering software to block out not only pornography, but also news and information about such issues as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Krause said public libraries should avoid using such software, and that librarians should not seek to control what Internet sites are visited by children. ''I think it's up to parents to control what their children have access to,'' Krause said.

CDA supporters have argued filtering software alone can't provide enough protection for minors. They say some legislation is needed as part of a three-stage solution to the problem, involving the government, the software industry, and parents.

CDA supporters say the court decision gives them hope a more narrowly crafted law could be devised. ''The court never says Congress may not regulate'' the Internet, said Robert Flores, general counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families. Indeed, in his opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens conceded ''the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials.''

Flores and other pro-CDA activists see this as a loophole to exploit. For instance, Flores believes the court would accept a law that would ban the transmission of indecent materials to a minor as part of an effort to engage in child molestation.

Some lawmakers are already drawing up bills to replace the CDA. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) yesterday announced a bill that would make filtering software available to all parents and create incentives for Internet publishers to attach ratings that would warn of any sexually explicit materials. ''Pornographers are prolific and determined; computer-savvy children are tough to shield. But something must be done,'' Murray said. ''Today's decision is a call to action.''


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