Senate moves ahead with Internet anti-porn measures

Wednesday, July 22, 1998

Sen. Dan Coats...
Photo by AP
Sen. Dan Coats

With little advance warning, the Senate yesterday added to an appropriations bill two amendments that are designed to protect children from accessing Internet pornography.


Both measures, S. 1482 and S. 1619, which faced heavy criticism from the cyber-liberties community, were passed by voice vote, facing little or no Senate opposition.


S. 1482, sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, R.-Ind., would criminalize the online commercial distribution of material that is “harmful to minors.” The bill has been dubbed the “Son of CDA” because it is similar to the first ill-fated attempt to regulate sexual material on the Internet — the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which Coats co-sponsored with former Sen. James Exon, R-Neb. The Internet indecency provisions of the CDA were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer in Reno v. ACLU.


S. 1619, or the Internet School Filtering Act, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, would require schools and libraries receiving federal funds for Internet hook-ups to install filtering software on computers to limit minors' exposure to pornography.


Sen. John McCai...
Photo by AP
Sen. John McCain

“Children should not be allowed to enter school or a public library and gain access to material that their parents would never allow them to see, and that most in society believe is inappropriate for those who are adults,” said McCain, R.-Ariz., in a statement after the amendments were approved.


“I think the two pieces of legislation work hand and hand to protect children from exposure to online pornography,” Coats said after the voice vote. “To effectively battle Internet porn we need a four-part strategy. First, parents must be aware of and supervise their children's online activities. Second, technology must play an essential role. Third, we must have tough laws that punish the criminal distribution of pornography online. And finally, we must have effective law enforcement. The best crafted laws are useless if law enforcement fails to prosecute.”


Bruce Watson, president-elect of the anti-pornography group Enough is Enough, said he is pleased to see both bills moving forward and believes the bills will pass constitutional muster.


“Coats' measure is specifically targeting only commercial pornographers, while the McCain bill, though it requires filtering, leaves the decision of what exactly to filter at the local level,” he said.


The cyber-liberties community reacted with dismay to the approval of both measures, questioning the lack of notice to opponents of the measures.


David Greene, program director for the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said: “Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this process is the circumstances under which these bills were approved.”


Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: “Free speech on the Internet was the victim of an ambush. The two bills represent a real-and-present danger to free speech on the Internet.”


Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, agreed with Steinhardt.


“It is appalling that the Senate has passed for the second time a restriction on Internet free speech without holding any hearings to investigate whether these restrictions are necessary, appropriate or constitutional,” he said.


“It's another rush to judgment by politicians who feel that it's imperative to do something immediately to protect children. In that rush, however, the First Amendment gets it in the neck again,” Finan said.


“When Congress did this the last time, we had to fight a blatantly unconstitutional law [the CDA] all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is just outrageous.”


Last week, representatives of 13 cyber-liberties organizations, all members of the Internet Free Expression Alliance, wrote a letter expressing opposition to both bills.


The groups wrote: “One year ago, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which made it a crime to transmit 'indecent' materials on the Internet, violated the First Amendment. The two pending bills ignore the central holding of the Court: expression on the Internet is entitled to the highest degree of First Amendment protection.”


The Senate is scheduled to vote tonight on the overall appropriations bill, the Commerce, State and Justice Appropriations Bill (S. 2260).