In rendering the decision that struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA), Justice John Paul Stevens delivered a sharp spanking to both the flock of Chicken Littles on Capitol Hill who passed the law and to the smarty-pants administration that so assiduously defended the measure banning Internet free speech.
I have to admit when I learned the justices were going to hear the case, I held my breath. Sure, the court is composed of nine of the sharpest legal minds in the land, but I worried that they would misunderstand the medium. After all, the august body isn't known for its cutting-edge modernity. My fears were misplaced.
In no uncertain terms, Stevens shredded the government's paper-thin arguments for allowing it to curb what sort of speech could be transmitted over the Internet. Stevens all but called the government lawyers incompetent for drawing on precedent-setting cases that, rather than defending the CDA, brought into question the constitutionality of the law. Stevens called the CDA unconstitutional, vague, and punitive. The law would enforce a de facto "heckler's veto," effectively squelching any speech with a single complaint.
In fact, Stevens's dressing-down was so complete, one couldn't help but wonder if the government lawyers didn't throw the game. It's an open secret in the administration that the CDA put the president in a no-win situation. If he didn't sign it into law, he was for stalkers and pedophiles. If he didn't defend it once it was law, ditto. But all along, people inside the administration--including Clinton's close friend and senior adviser, Ira Magaziner--were saying they thought the CDA wasn't defendable.
So perhaps the Supremes aren't wired to the teeth. Perhaps they don't do "what's on your PowerBook" ads for Apple. But their ruling showed that, armed with a little common sense and freed from political baggage, the Internet isn't that mysterious after all.
Now if the Clinton administration can just get to that point, we could all breathe easier. It would be comforting to believe Clinton was just going through the motions in defending the CDA, but I'm not so sure yet. In reaction to the ruling, the president released a statement saying the next step is a technological fix: an Internet V-chip. In the eloquent words of Homer Simpson: "Doh!"
If the Supreme Court has to strike down another CDA, it'll really give Clinton and Congress something to cry about.
Margie Wylie is the opinions editor for NEWS.COM.