It's time to add onetime presidential hopeful John Kerry to the long list of politicians who have scant understanding of free speech and the Internet.
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a press release on Friday that he wants to make it "illegal to transmit images of dog fighting, to run websites that cater to dog fighting."
Such a law could, of course, imperil news organizations and animal rights Web sites that "transmit images of dog fighting" as part of reporting on or, alternatively, condemning the practice. It could even make this article, which includes a photograph of dogs fighting, illegal.
Thanks a lot, senator.
Now we should say at this point that we're hardly fans of dog fighting, which is a brutal, bloody, and awful practice.
But neither are we fans of Washington politicians who fasten firmly onto a topic, like lamprey eels, immediately after it hits the headlines. As far as we can tell, Kerry is no longtime, principled opponent of dogfights: a Web search shows his first press release on the topic appeared two days after NFL star Michael Vick's indictment on dog fighting charges hit the news last week. Kerry, of course, has been in the U.S. Senate since 1985.
It's true that dogfighting is illegal in every state, at least according to the Humane Society of the United States. And a recently amended federal law already bans interstate transport of any animal used in a "fighting venture."
But just because an act is illegal doesn't mean that photographs of it should be. Photographs of murders appear in documentaries and in news articles. Images of the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers slaughtered unarmed Vietnamese civilians, helped to end the Vietnam war. Should photographs of a college student using peer-to-peer networks to trade copyrighted files--a federal crime, no joke--be outlawed by the U.S. Congress as well?
Now, we recognize that the senator from Massachusetts could probably write legislation in such a way that would get a thumbs-up from the Supreme Court and not create another gaping hole in the First Amendment's shield protecting Americans from government censorship. (Something like: "No person, in order to promote a dog fighting event that is prohibited under state or federal law, shall knowingly post on the Internet videos showing dogs fighting at an organized match or competition...")
But Kerry's self-congratulatory press release gave no sign that he intended his harebrained scheme to be limited that way, and not giving politicians more credit for constitutional intelligence than they actually deserve should be a tenet of all political reporting.
Kerry, by the way, received a remarkably poor grade of just 15 out of 100 possible points in CNET News.com's 2006 Technology Voter Guide. That's in part because of his dogged support for other censorial measures over the years, including the unconstitutional Communications Decency Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's "anti-circumvention" rules, and to place Internet filters in schools and libraries. At least he's consistent.
We should note, to avoid charges of partisan bias, that Kerryesque censor-happy proposals are hardly limited to Democrats. The Bush administration is no champion of civil liberties, and Republican politicians have recently floated ideas like forcing Web sites to report illegal images, requiring Internet providers to keep records on their users' activities and demanding that naughty Web sites be labeled.