Some find irony in Starr report posting

Tuesday, September 15, 1998

Despite the Starr report's steamy subject matter, House members with a 363-63 vote last Friday morning deemed the content of the report too important to censure or seal and posted the full 445-page document on the Internet.

That same day, in a subcommittee room at the Rayburn Office Building near the Capitol, the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection heard testimony on seven bills that would restrict or filter materials on the Internet deemed “harmful to minors.”

The coincidence of House members clamoring for open records on the floor and then debating Internet censorship in a committee room didn't escape many lawmakers or free-speech advocates.

“It really ought to give members of Congress great pause about passing legislation to censor the Internet,” said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is a perfect example of the effect of another vague definition such as 'harmful to minors.'”

During the subcommittee hearing, Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said: “It is not clear to me whether the Starr report or parts of the Starr report would be appropriate, because it may not have redeeming social importance for minors.”

New legislation from Rep. Mike Oxley, D-Ohio, and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., would prohibit commercial Web sites from distributing potentially harmful materials to minors. Other bills considered in the hearing would require Internet filters to be placed on computers in public schools and libraries.

During the hearing, Oxley didn't mention the irony of the timing of the Internet censorship debate with the posting of the Starr report. A spokesman said the congressman wouldn't comment on the hearing except to say that the bills would pass a constitutional test.

Steinhardt said he has “little doubt” that the Starr report would have violated the original Communications Decency Act. Congress passed the CDA in 1996 only to have the U.S. Supreme Court reject substantial portions on First Amendment grounds the following year. The Coats bill, appoved by the Senate earlier this year, has been called CDA II.

“And there's very little question that the sexually explicit nature of the Starr report would put it in violation of the Coats and Oxley bills,” he said.

While the House members themselves would avoid prosecution under CDA II because they posted the report on noncommercial, government Web sites, news organizations such as The New York Times and the Washington Post might find themselves in trouble.

“Under CDA II, it would be necessary for those sites to have a form of adult verification or identification which is generally done by credit card,” Steinhardt said. “It would simply be impossible for sites like the CNN site, which is open to all,” to post the report.

Ari Schwartz, policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said lawmakers narrowing the original CDA's restrictions to “harmful to minors” doesn't help because the commercial sites are often the best venue for dissemination.

“Our view is that the report should definitely go up and for parents to decide what is appropriate,” Schwartz said.

Steinhardt said “the ultimate irony” lies not so much with the Coats and Oxley bills but with those that require Internet filtering.

“The Starr report will be blocked by a number of filtering products,” he said. “So you have this extraordinarily important material that goes to the viability of the presidency. You can read it in full in a number of mainstream newspapers, but you can't when you go to a school or a public library.”