WASHINGTON--Standing in front of majestic stained glass windows inside American University's Kay Chapel today, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) could have been mistaken for a preacher. Until he began to speak.
Despite the church-like setting, Leahy delivered a keynote speech about protecting free speech on the Net--even the smutty stuff--to about 50 attendees of the National First Amendment Congress' conference on cyberights.
The "Congress" consists of 20 national news media and communications associations committed to increasing awareness about First Amendment rights.
The Net and free speech are common territory for Leahy. First elected in 1974, he voted against the Communications Decency Act in February 1996 and is a founding member of the Congressional Internet Caucus. He also authored legislation to apply the Freedom of Information Act to electronic records.
The audience of First Amendment advocates, students, professors, and journalists listened as Leahy described a scene that was more ironic than mentioning pornography in a chapel.
During the Supreme Court hearing on the Communications Decency Act on Wednesday, Leahy and his colleagues noticed something in those hallowed halls that could be deemed "indecent," which under the CDA would be illegal to send or show to minors on the Net.
"It's fortunate we didn't cybercast the arguments, because on the ceiling above the Supreme Court justices, they are figures of nude children and bare-breasted women," he quipped.
The CDA was blocked by a federal court last summer and appealed to the Supreme Court by the Clinton administration. The high court's opinion is expected this summer.
Leahy thinks the return of the law in some form is possible, but he will fight it. He's already introduced a bill to repeal the CDA. The congressman also will try to combat the misinformation that he says led the CDA's passage.
"Some members of Congress don't even know how to turn on a computer," he taunted. "They voted for the CDA, because they didn't want someone to say they were in favor of pornography. Some members were so offended that they went back to look at the indecent pictures--over and over and over again."
Although laced with sarcasm, his message was serious, Leahy said. He believes that protecting First Amendment rights is of paramount importance.
"The free flow of information is the lifeblood of our democracy," he said. "The Net is going to challenge our commitment to free speech more than any form of communication in my lifetime," he said.