Panelists: First Amendment freedoms are caught in Net

Thursday, February 8, 2001

NEW YORK — With the rapidly widening use of the Internet, First
Amendment issues are becoming more complicated than ever: Libraries that used
to be attacked for housing what some considered “smut” (i.e. Balzac, Chaucer,
the classics) are now being attacked for unfiltered Internet access. Pirating
music on the Internet has become a major pastime, but violations of copyright
laws are landing some people in court. And religious organizations that should
be supporting the First Amendment are sometimes leading the protests against

That was the assessment of a panel of experts at a First Amendment
Center public forum Feb. 6 on the most recent
Media Studies Journal, which examined the
First Amendment as it pertains to technology, libraries and religion in the
United States.

“This has been a bad year for the First Amendment in libraries,” said
Nancy Kranich, president of the American Libraries Association. Kranich pointed
to the overwhelming public demand
that public and school libraries use filters to screen out Internet access
to pornographic and other salacious sites.

Filters, she said, are a violation of people’s First Amendment rights.
And besides, she added, “They don’t work. The filters miss too much.”

She recounted the humorous story of one American high school that
filtered itself out of the information its students could access when it barred
the word “high” in any title. The students, she said, were unable to get to
their own school’s Web page.

And while the public may generally support looser copyright laws on
the Internet, Kranich said, many Americans are staunchly opposed to librarians
who allow unfiltered Internet access, particularly in schools.

“We’ve been called everything from pirates to pornographers,” she

Kranich was joined in the discussion by
Mike Godwin, author of
Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital
and Charles Haynes, senior scholar for The Freedom Forum’s
religious freedom programs and author of
Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and
Public Education.

“First Amendment rights are being overlooked,” said Godwin, referring
to the Napster court cases that
pit copyright laws against free
music downloads offered on the Internet. “The [recording companies] may be
winning in the courts, but they are losing out with the consumers.”

Godwin argued that free sampling of music over the Internet actually
leads to revenue for songwriters because song samples increase the chance that
someone will buy an entire album.

“We have to find a balance that will allow for revenue and that can
allow people to create what they want online,” he added.

In the area of religion, Haynes pointed out that the First Amendment
is not a crowd pleaser.

“Many people who are deeply religious are also deeply disturbed by the
First Amendment,” Haynes said. “It has a very bad reputation in religious
groups” who he said are suspicious about new ideas infiltrating their

They are also worried about pornography or even secular notions being
injected into the minds of their children, he added.

And, he noted, the irony is that many filters that are supported by
religious groups actually filter out the Bible, among other things.

“We have to convince Americans that filters are not in their best
interest,” Haynes said. “We must protect everyone’s rights and make sure we are
creating an even playing field.”

He urged the audience to help rebuild trust in First Amendment

And moderator John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center
in Nashville, Tenn., added, “We should all be concerned about the First
Amendment. Speak out and say what you think.”