The role of free speech on the Internet will be debated in at least three different states this week as two lawsuits seek to overturn the Communications Decency Act and a journalism professor takes on the University of Oklahoma complaining that the school is violating the First Amendment rights of Internet users.
A federal court in Manhattan is now hearing testimony on a suit filed by Joe Shea, editor of the American Reporter. Like the higher-profile ACLU vs. Janet Reno case, where final arguments will be heard later this month in Philadelphia. Shea's suit against the Justice Department seeks to overturn the CDA, which was signed into law on February 8 and makes it illegal to post indecent material to online areas that could be viewed by minors. Shea filed the suit because he says the law limits freedom of speech for the U.S. press.
In a related fight for free speech rights in Oklahoma, journalism law professor Bill Loving filed a federal complaint against the University of Oklahoma, charging that it blocked access to a newsgroup from the university's computers. The newsgroup, "alt.sex," was blocked on April 1 after the university received complaints from a religious organization charging that the newsgroup is sexually obscene.
Loving says restricting students' access to the Internet is a violation of their First Amendment rights, and he awaiting the university's response.
The American Reporter's fight against the CDA began when it posted a commentary by First Amendment advocate Stephen Russell that contains the "seven dirty words" cited in other free speech cases and then some. "The commentary was aimed at the members of Congress who voted for this piece of trash," Shea said.
The article is now being introduced to the debate. The Philadelphia City newspaper reprinted the full commentary, and Harper's magazine reprinted excerpts in the May edition. Publishers of those two publications will not face consequences for printing the article, but if the CDA remains in effect Shea could face fines of up to $250,000 fines and up to two years in jail. "The law would apply a double standard to newspapers depending on whether they appear in print or appear on your computer," he said.
As a matter of policy, the American Reporter does not publish obscene material, but Shea said he decided to publish the article to take a stand. "If it were not for the fact that our First Amendment rights were directly threatened by the CDA, we would not have published the article," he said.
Shea's case is similar to the combined case of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association but says his case focuses on the issue of print vs. online free speech rights. "The ACLU case is a far broader challenge than ours, which is much more focused and much more directed," said Shea.
Nevertheless, Shea expects his suit to be consolidated with the ACLU suit next month. The court is expected to reach a decision on the Shea case in May while arguments for the ACLU are expected on May 10. "In all probability, the case will be consolidated and taken to the Supreme Court," Shea said.
The government provided testimony from some of the same witnesses who testified against the ACLU, including Special Agent Howard Schmidt of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and Dan Olsen, professor of computer science at Brigham Young University. Schmidt pointed to sites that contain sexually explicit content and showed the court how easy it is to access them, while Olsen testified about theoretical technology that could be used to block inappropriate content.
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