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US: Supreme Court Hears Case On Internet Freedom

Washington, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The United States Supreme Court begins hearing arguments today on the constitutionality of a law that attempts to regulate sexually explicit and offensive material on the Internet.

It is the first legal case regarding the Internet to ever reach the nation's highest court. The Internet, simply explained, is the world's largest network that electronically links computer systems of all kinds to each other via telephone lines.

The law in question is the Communications Decency Act -- a part of the 1996 U.S. Telecommunications Act -- which makes it a crime punishable by a $250,000 fine or up to two years in prison for having "indecent" material accessible to children via the Internet.

The law was struck down as unconstitutional last year by a federal panel of judges in Philadelphia after a challenge was issued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a private organization dedicated to protecting the right of free speech.

Lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department, working for the administration of President Bill Clinton, immediately took up the case, asking the nation's highest court for a judicial review of the matter.

Legal experts say it is a somewhat unusual stand for the President as he usually sides with the ACLU and other free speech advocates on most matters. But political observers say Clinton does not want to be seen as protecting child pornographers, and therefore has wholeheartedly embraced the Decency Act.

The government's case centers around the argument that the law should be upheld as constitutional because societal interests in protecting children outweighs the limited prohibitions on distributing offensive materials via the Internet.

Even more at risk, argue government lawyers, is that the Internet as an educational tool will be endangered if parents forbid their children on-line access in an attempt to shield them from "exposure to patently offensive sexually explicit material."

According to a legal brief submitted to the justices by the Clinton administration lawyers, there is the suggestion that: "Congress could direct purveyors of indecent material away from cyberspace that are easily accessible to children ... just as cities could direct adult theaters away from residential neighborhoods."

But free speech advocates say the law unconstitutionally restricts the open flow of information. Besides, they say, the law could not stop or regulate the transmission of sexually explicit material on the Internet by foreign sources.

Nor does the law clearly define the term "indecent," they add. At risk for censorship, say free speech supporters, are works of art, literature, science, medical diagrams, and sexual and psychological counseling.

Opponents of the law say that policing the Internet is the responsibility of parents, not the government. They point out that parents are free to purchase any number of software packages now on the market which prohibit access to certain sexually explicit web sites on the Internet.

"If the government prevails, it will destroy the Internet as we know it," says Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocate for free speech on the Internet.

The Supreme Court has a mixed record on the protection of freedom of speech. Overall, the Court has managed to uphold the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which declares that Congress shall pass no law that infringes on the freedom of speech or of the press.

The court has taken small steps, especially in an attempt to protect children, to regulate the use of obscenities on television and radio, by forbidding broadcasters to use certain "dirty words" during programs.

However, the Court ruled in 1983 that protecting children should not be pursued so eagerly that it diminishes all communication to that which would be "suitable for a sandbox."

Legal experts say the ruling will be a difficult one for the judges to decide. It is widely believed that none of the justices are well-versed in exploring the Internet and the Supreme Court will not permit a demonstration of the technology since the justices do not allow exhibits of any kind as part of the court process.

The justices are expected to rule on the matter by July.