Reducing free speech’s Net worth

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

The Commonwealth of Virginia seems to be awash in Internet ironies right now:

In response to last week’s court ruling that the Loudoun County library board’s policies restricted access to the Internet unconstitutionally, the board restricted access further by unplugging the computers.

A blue-ribbon high technology commission has declared Virginia “the Internet capital of the world.” But at a meeting in historic Williamsburg tomorrow, the commission will recommend a series of new policies designed to be a model for showing other states how best to regulate the Internet; i.e., make it less than it can be.

Among the commission’s recommendations will be a requirement that local governments and libraries establish “appropriate-use” policies on access to the Internet, despite last week’s landmark decision striking down such a policy in Loudoun County.

Ironies aside, the federal court’s Loudoun County ruling was no surprise. In fact, the courts have consistently recognized full First Amendment protections for online speech.

A year and a half ago, the Supreme Court firmly rejected the Communications Decency Act, a ham-handed attempt by Congress to restrict Internet speech. Courts in New York and Georgia have struck down similar attempts to regulate Net speech. On Nov. 19, a federal court in Philadelphia put a temporary stay on CDA 2, approved by members of Congress who apparently didn’t read the Supreme Court’s first decision. A few days later, Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that the Loudoun County library’s policy on Internet access “offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment.”

It is doubtful these decisions will dampen the enthusiasm or curb the commitment or creativity of a new breed of censors, however. These well-organized, politically savvy groups will continue to train their sights on libraries in general and the Internet in particular.

They consider the library a threat because it offers views of the world the censors don’t share, as well as a place where reason has at least a passing chance of besting rhetoric.

The censors consider the Internet a threat because it further expands the horizons of both children and adults and because its interactive nature gives voice to the legions that no longer have to suffer in silence the doctrine of the majority and the dogma of the righteous.

Like books in the past, the Internet inflames the passions of the censor. Unlike books, the Internet has not been fully accepted into our intellectual culture; therefore, it is not as easily or readily defended. Many ordinary citizens, public officials and some judges do not fully understand how the Internet works or even what it is. That ignorance is easy to exploit.

So, too, is the Internet’s difference as a medium of communication: The censors can and do claim that they are just regulating technology, not speech.

Although Loudoun County reflects what is happening in communities across this nation, it has the distinction of being the first in several ways.

  • The Loudoun County library board was the first to rewrite the American Library Association’s “Bill of Rights,” removing anti-censorship language in three different passages.

  • The Loudoun County board was the first to pass such a restrictive Internet access policy, installing imperfect filtering software that denied access to protected speech for adults and children alike.

  • The Loudoun County board was the first in the nation to have a federal court rule that its Internet filtering policy violated the First Amendment.

  • The Loudoun County libraries were the first in the nation to shut off their computers rather than trust their patrons to use the Internet wisely.

    Today, the board members will vote on whether to spend more taxpayer funds to defend an indefensible attempt to restrict access to the vast array of information on the Internet to what is acceptable and appropriate for a six-year-old.

    The makeup of the board is different today. Hopefully, the members will not follow in the footsteps of the preceding board, which failed the county’s library patrons miserably. Hopefully, these board members will recognize that the library serves as a repository of knowledge, a haven for learning, and a refuge for reason. It should not be — it cannot be — a tool of any political, religious or social group bent on turning the library and its offerings to its own purpose.

    It will be difficult for the board to repudiate its recent past, however. And even if it does the right thing, the battle will continue in hundreds of communities across this country. The pattern and practices are well known.

    The new censors get elected or appointed to the board with a primary purpose of reducing the “menace” of an uncensored library.

    Restrictive policies are put in place. Because the courts have consistently turned back bald assaults on First Amendment protections, the new censors resort to all sorts of tortured justifications for these policies.

    The virulence and persistence of the new censors’ efforts have little if anything to do with protecting children or the sensibilities of library employees. That’s because the new censors at heart are no different from the old censors.

    The mentality of the censor, in fact, is as old as humankind. To control speech is to control knowledge, and to control knowledge is to control thinking. To control thinking is to underwrite a uniform view of ourselves and our morality.

    Where words and images and ideas alarm the censors, numbers comfort them. In their minds, there is strength in numbers, and it doesn’t really matter whether they persuade others to their point of view or coerce others by enforcing conformity and silence. Any guilt the censors might feel is expiated by their invoking the values of decency and order.

    Which brings us to yet another irony.

    It should be uncommonly difficult for the censor’s mentality to take hold in the Commonwealth of Virginia, home of George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, statesmen who articulated our noblest and most democratic of impulses and traditions. Instead we wait in vain for leaders to step forward and reassert Mason’s faith in the wisdom and goodness of his fellow citizens and reaffirm Jefferson’s faith in freedom of conscience.

    While we wait, Madison’s magnificent mantle rests uneasily on the shirking shoulders of today’s politicos. While we wait, the censor’s mentality is taking hold in Virginia, as it is in the nation, even in cyberspace.

    And that summons up the ultimate irony: The idea that putting down speech makes us better and safer than standing up for it.

    Paul McMasters may be contacted at