Civil libertarians blast Internet pornography proposals

Friday, March 13, 1998

Sen. John McCai...
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Sen. John McCain

The Senate Commerce Committee's unanimous approval of Sen. John McCain's Internet School Filtering Act and near-unanimous approval of Sen. Dan Coats' most recent Internet indecency law has upset civil libertarians, but pleased anti-pornography groups.

Solveig Singleton of the Cato Institute, a civil-libertarian think tank, said that “some of the senators recognized the constitutional problems posed by the bills but just sort of floated them through. It is an election year.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way and the American Library Association also strongly disapprove of both bills.

In a letter to the Senate committee, ACLU officials said “both bills fly in the face of the Supreme Court's ruling” in Reno v. ACLU., in which the Court said that the Internet deserved the highest levels of speech protection, akin to that of the print medium.

Larry Ottinger, a senior staff attorney with the People for the American Way, said that mandatory installation of blocking software–as called for in the McCain bill–is “an unconstitutional solution in search of a problem.”

Ottinger also blasted Coats' proposal: “Obviously, we oppose [it]. It's the Son of [the Communications Decency Act] and is just as illegal as the original Internet indecency provisions of the CDA. I wonder if the members of the Commerce Committee read the Supreme Court's decision last summer in Reno v. ACLU.”

American Library Association officials support an idea by Sen. Conrad Burns that would require public libraries and schools to have a policy on web use, rather than mandatory filtering software, in order to receive federal funding for Internet hookups.

Carol Henderson, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office, said: “The senators passed the McCain bill with the understanding that the offices of Sen. Conrad Burns and Sen. John Breaux would modify the language somewhat.” Sen. Breaux provided no specific language but mentioned the concept “filtering with flexibility,” Henderson said.

However, Singleton said that while there was talk of modifications, there was “no formal understanding.”

“The passage out of committee of this bill with talk of future modifications is a bit unusual,” Henderson said, and “is further evidence that this is simply a big election-year issue.”

However, anti-pornography groups disagree, arguing government has a compelling interest in protecting minors. These groups strongly support the bills by McCain and Coats.

Shyla Welch, communications coordinator for Enough is Enough, said: “I believe both bills are constitutional and necessary. Parents must have assurances that schools and libraries offer some protection for their children. It's an important step in protecting children.

Sen. Dan Coats...
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Sen. Dan Coats

“However, all of us know that nothing, including filtering systems, are 100 percent effective. That's where Sen. Coats' bill comes into play,” Welch said.

“Pornographers need to take some responsibility to prevent children from accessing their material. Pornographers make enormous profits with no responsibility.”

Bruce Taylor, president and chief counsel of the National Law Center for Children and Families, expressed similar sentiments.

In a statement Taylor wrote: “An amendment [to Sen. McCain's bill] may be politically advantageous to the ACLU, the American Library Association, and other libertarian groups that support free access to pornography and oppose the use of filters, but would be disastrous to America's children and families by setting up an unprecedented acceptance of illegal pornography to minors, funded by the United States Government.”

Crystal Roberts, legal policy analyst for the Family Resource Council, also supports both bills. She said: “These measures aim to protect children from harmful, sexually-explicit material and seek to simply bring activity on the Internet into compliance with existing laws.”