Latest Internet smut-law standards lacking

Thursday, December 13, 2001

The U.S. Supreme Court once again has been asked to decide the constitutionality of a federal law that attempts to shield children from sexually explicit pictures and other objectionable material that are readily available on the Internet.

The court struck down an earlier version of the legislation as an unconstitutional limit on free speech. The latest version, contained in the Child Online Protection Act, makes it a crime to knowingly place objectionable material within a child's easy access on the Internet. Violation can carry fines or six months in jail. The act requires commercial Web sites to collect credit-card numbers or access codes as proof of age before allowing Internet users to view online material deemed harmful to minors.

In itself, the law sounds proper since most would agree that children should not be allowed access to all the smut that is transmitted over the World Wide Web and is so easily accessible to anyone with a personal computer and Internet connection. But the question before the court, which is expected to rule next year, isn't that simple.

The latest version of the law raises the question of whether Internet content deemed "harmful to minors" should be blocked by using what Congress called "community standards" of what is appropriate for youngsters and teen-agers to see. It is the community-standards provision that the court should question in finding a balance between protecting youngsters from online smut and preserving free speech.

At least two justices already have expressed doubts over the provision. Justice Antonin Scalia questioned whether it would be possible for a jury in North Carolina to determine how online material might offend the standards of New York City or Las Vegas. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked whether a jury in California should take into account the views of an expert witness brought in from New York.

The American Civil Liberties Union claims community standards would end up meaning the standards of the most conservative community in the country, since the Internet spans all communities: permissive, conservative and in between.

The government claims community standards are workable online, because reasonable people generally agree about what should be out of bounds.

If what constitutes smut is that clear-cut -- and certainly some aspects of pornography are clearly unsuited for children -- a national standard rather than community standards should be the basis for deciding what is acceptable for youngsters to see and read on the Internet.

If the government wants to properly and fairly prevent youngsters from accessing Internet smut, there must be one standard, not separate standards from city to city. After all, smut is smut regardless of where one lives.

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