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NSI's ban on "dirty" domains challenged

Network Solutions' refusal to register expletives as domain names faces scrutiny today when a federal judge hears arguments that the policy violates free-speech guarantees.

Network Solutions' refusal to register expletives as domain names is expected to come under scrutiny today when a federal judge in Los Angeles hears arguments that the policy violates free-speech guarantees.

Earlier, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson issued a temporary order requiring NSI to set aside more than a dozen domain names until the matter could be heard in court. At today's hearing, lawyers will argue whether the order should be extended so that it is in place for the remainder of the case.

Additionally, lawyers for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) are expected to argue that the nonprofit group, appointed to oversee the privatization of domain registration, should be dismissed from the case.

Los Angeles-based Seven Words filed the suit in March, claiming that NSI's policy not to register the so-called seven dirty words--made popular in a monologue by comedian George Carlin--violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech. The suit, filed against NSI and ICANN, alleges that the groups are subject to the same high restraints placed on government offices because they operate under authority of the Commerce Department.

"We're asking for the judge in a preliminary way to decide that we have a meritorious case and to hold the disputed domain names in place pending resolution of the case," said Jay Spillane, an attorney representing Seven Words at the Los Angeles firm Fox, Siegler & Spillane.

NSI argues that its policy forbidding the registration of "inappropriate" words was developed independently from the U.S. government, a spokesman said. Under established law, private companies operate under a much more relaxed standard than do governmental groups and generally are free to exclude whatever speech they wish.

NSI also has requested that the case be transferred to New Hampshire, where a separate lawsuit challenging NSI's policy is pending, the lawyers said. They added that Lynn Haberstroh, the plaintiff in the New Hampshire case, is seeking to register many of the same domain names, almost all of which are considered vulgar.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld Federal Communications Commission restrictions on the broadcasting of the seven expletives. With minor modifications, NSI adopted the guidelines for its own registration policy. A number of domain names containing the expletives remain in place because they were registered before the 1996 policy was forged. NSI's policy also has run aground when applicants register names that are similar to or contain the expletives, such as "shitake.com."

For its part, ICANN is trying to remain neutral in the case.

"We have already told the court we're not a registrar and should be dismissed from the case," said Jeff LeVee, an attorney at Jones Day Reavis & Pogue, who is representing ICANN. "ICANN really has no official position."

But LeVee added that it was "stretching it" for Seven Words to claim that NSI is acting as a governmental body when it denies certain registrations.

Spillane, the Seven Words attorney, declined to say what business the company was in but added that it does not distribute porn.