“Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if (free speech) protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection”
That is a quote from Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr. as he struck down a Federal law known as the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA). This law had made it a crime for any Internet site operator to display pornographic material (i.e., material that was considered by the government to be “harmful to minors,” without requiring some form of identification, such as a credit card, to verify that the viewer was an adult. Penalties for website operators who broke this law would have included a fine of up to $50,000 and a term in jail of up to 6 months. This law is, at the moment, dead but the litigation will no doubt continue for several more years.
My initial knee-jerk reaction to this story was, perhaps, predictable: ‘anything that protects kids is a good thing and any judge who would remove that protection is evil.’ But then I stopped and considered two things:
First of all this is just another case of the government trying to take the job of parenting away from parents. What our children can and cannot access, at least at home, is (and should be) completely up to us, the parents of those children. If parents provides Internet access to their children they (the parents) have to make the decision about what is appropriate and what is not. Not surprisingly, some parents will make different choices than others: for example, some parents do not feel that nudity is inappropriate, some parents do not feel that gratuitous violence is inappropriate (if they did, the video game industry would collapse) and I’m sure that there are some parents that do not feel that viewing some sexual activity over the Internet is inappropriate. Whatever the case and whatever you, I or the government feels about this, it is frankly none of our business. We can NOT allow the government to tamper with the values that a parent chooses to instill in his or her child, however repulsive those values may seem to you or I. As the judge in this case pointed out: parents who are intent on limiting Internet access to protect their children can do so through the use of software filters and other less restrictive means “that do not limit the rights of others to free speech”.
Secondly, this is not really about the children. This case and this now defunct (at least temporarily) law is really about the Internet and the right of people who produce Internet content to produce anything they want and to display it free of charge if they so choose. Now granted, that opens the door to what most of us would consider very objectionable material but that does not stop the viewer (or the parent of a viewer) from ‘changing the channel’. Nor does it give anyone permission to produce ‘illegal’ Internet content (e.g., sexual acts involving children or “snuff” films); people who produce that type of material will still, without the benefit of COPA, be prosecuted — as they should be.
More importantly, COPA (and other laws like it, laws that purport to “protect us”) is another attempt by the government to define our society and that, ladies and gentlemen, is something that is way beyond any power that was granted to the Federal government by our Constitution.
CNN.com: Court strikes down Internet porn law
ABC News/Associated Press: U.S. Judge Blocks 1998 Online Porn Law
What Bloggers are Saying:
Entertainment Law: COPA Struck Down!
PCAnswer.com: Judge rightly strikes down Internet “protection” law