Censorship and sensibility
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM
NEW YORK--It's bitter cold out, but in the bare Manhattan offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ann Beeson is still glowing with the success of her recent victory.
Just a few years out of law school, Beeson has helped fight, and is close to winning, the most significant civil liberties case in years: defeating the so-called Communications Decency Act. The young attorney has tracked the intersection of the Internet with human rights and civil liberties for several years, but it's her role in the CDA case that has set Beeson on the road to stardom. Though she's not the lead attorney in the ACLU's case against the federal statute, Beeson vetted the suits and has become the ACLU's premier spokeswoman for cyber civil liberties. Right now, she seems to be enjoying it.
Barely containing her glee and perhaps a touch of nerves, Beeson purses her lips and glances at a poster of scantily-clad porn star and free speech crusader Nina Hartley. Holding an oversized fountain pen like a shepherd's staff, Hartley vamps amid stars, stripes, and the slogan "Free speech now."
The poster sums up Beeson's personal sentiments, not just an ACLU stand. In a Texan drawl delivered in New Yorker fast forward, Beeson tells how she met Hartley through another friend, Candida Royalle, the feminist porn filmmaker, fellow jazz singer and fellow board member of Feminists for Free Expression. People always find the poster a little disconcerting, she grins, but free speech isn't always comfortable. Beeson believes deeply that there should be no limits to free speech at any time, anywhere, especially on the Internet, and, so far, the courts have agreed.
In a landmark ruling, a Philadelphia circuit court struck down the CDA declaring that cyberspace was a media deserving of the highest first amendment protections. The Supreme Court will decide in the coming months if it agrees, but the outlook is good for the ACLU's case.
With the CDA all but dead, Beeson is turning her attention to state Internet censorship laws that popped up in the wake of the federal statute. According to Beeson, the ACLU hopes that by fighting for free speech online, it will win wider first amendment rights for TV and other media. She's also fighting university's attempts to control student and faculty use of the Internet, and just beginning to think about the implications of spam and copyright rules on free speech.
Other than that, her life has slowed down enough to plan her wedding this year, she said, and maybe go hiking. But she's not counting on it.
NEWS.COM talked with Beeson in the ACLU's headquarters just off Times Square about the CDA, state laws, and the Internet's pivotal role in civil liberties.
Three years ago, politicians didn't know what the Internet was.
Today, laws are popping up on both the federal and local level like
mushrooms after a rain. Why the sudden interest?
Beeson: When I first became interested in these issues, NOBODY knew what I
was even talking about. Most lawyers didn't even know about the Internet.
Most legislators didn't know about the Internet; they had certainly never
been on it. I think that's probably still largely true today,
But this is not a new phenomenon. Early on, the radio was seen as this
incredibly democratizing medium. Everybody early on could have their own
radio station. There's nothing implicit about radio technology that makes
it subject to all of this government regulation, but of course, the
government immediately stepped in and said, "No, we've got to take control
over this and issue licenses." And the rest is history, so to speak.
Hopefully, because of the nature of the Internet being somewhat different
than radio, we won't see that happen with the Internet. But it's
unfortunately a historical cycle.
The ACLU has been around for over 75 years now, and if you look back
through the files, it's happened whenever a new medium of communication has
been introduced. Every single time you get this wave of censors who try to
regulate it. It happened with radio, it happened with the telephone, and it
happened with television. You still have it, to some extent, with all of
Every single time the censors among us come forward and say, "This is going
to destroy the morals of our youth." And the civil libertarians sort of
always have to come back and say, "No, no. Information is a good thing.
Speech is a good thing."
The whole CDA debate has generated (and I think this is a fabulous thing
because I work for the ACLU) a whole new generation of civil libertarians,
people that didn't really think of themselves as being civil liberties
advocates, but who realized that these kind of regulations on their baby of
communication, the Internet, were going to keep them from saying what they
wanted to say.
NEXT: Hush-hushing the Internet