A three-judge federal panel heard the last witness today for ACLU vs. Janet Reno and scheduled final arguments on the case, which will have a profound
impact on the future of free speech on the Internet.
The Philadelphia-based district judges appeared anxious to hasten
the end of the Communications Decency Act case, which nearly all observers expect will go to the
Supreme Court regardless of their decision. Final arguments
have been moved up to May 10 from June 3 as originally scheduled.
To help speed the proceedings, lawyers representing both the Justice Department and the lead plaintiffs--the
Liberties Union and the American
Library Association--agreed today to
decline their right to call witnesses in response to testimony. That
procedure had been scheduled for
"We thought it wasn't necessary to call witnesses back to testify
based on the testimony we heard over the last few weeks," said Christopher
Hansen, legal counsel for the ACLU.
ACLU and Justice Department attorneys will present written final briefs to the court on
April 29 and then present final arguments May 10.
Attorneys believe that the process will move quickly.
"I think that we're talking closer to two weeks as opposed to two years,"
Sobel, legal counsel with the Electronic
Privacy Information Center, a free-speech organization. "I think it's been pretty clear in terms of the interest that
the judges have expressed in the issue, and in moving the dates forward that
they recognize the need to come to a decision."
Although the ACLU argues that the Communications Decency Act is
unconstitutional under the First Amendment, neither the ACLU nor the Justice Department lawyers addressed the fundamental constitutional issues raised by this case, instead focusing on practical and technological questions.
In addition to a primer on how to use the Net and an overview of the
diversity of the Internet community, the plaintiffs' case boiled down to two
points: that the Net is so enormous and various that it would be impossible
for a government agency to monitor adequately and that such supervision is
rendered unnecessary by the existence of filtering technology that lets parents
do it themselves.
The plaintiffs called ten witnesses to back up its points:
--Ann Duball, CEO of parental control software company SurfWatch
--Scott O. Bradner, senior technical consultant at Harvard University
--Professor Donna Hoffman from Vanderbilt University
--Robert Cronenberger, director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
--Bill Burrington, assistant general counsel and director of public policy for America Online
--Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape
--Andrew Anker, president and CEO of HotWired
--Howard Rheingold, well-known author on the nature of cyberspace
--Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU
--Albert Vezza, associate director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science
The government called only two witnesses, one of whom was Special Agent
Howard Schmidt of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. In testimony Friday, Schmidt,
pointed to sites that contain sexually explicit
content and showed the court how easy it is to access them.
Dan Olsen, professor of computer science at Brigham Young University, was the last
witness to testify, outlining his theories for new technology not yet
created but theoretically possible, according to Olsen, that would help to
censor Internet content. Olsen suggested that Webmasters could embed a tag in
the Web site address based on the content provided; if browsers were
configured to read the technology to read the tags, the browsers could be
programmed to block sites with questionable content.
While Olsen's proposal is similar to the PICS rating system already
introduced and endorsed by Microsoft
and Netscape Communications, Olsen
said that enforcement of the system would require an "Internet-wide
agreement" to adopt the system as a universal standard.
problem with the technology is the technical issue
doesn't answer the bottom-line question, which is: 'How is indecency going to
be defined and how does a content provider determine what is and what is not
illegal?'" Sobel asked.
That question is the one that no one has wanted to answer since
President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act on February 8. The
Communications Decency Act, which included as Section 507 of the telecommunications legislation, specifically
outlaws the transmission of material "patently offensive" to minors.
Violators face up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
judges shown ease of surfing
CDA judges get look at Net
The CDA on trial
The Net testifies at CDA
provision of CDA under attack
is in, obscene is out
Censoring cybersmut: what
Will you be
Browsers to help
parents monitor Net
coverage: CNET Radio