WWI: Web War IBy Eric Seymour
New technologies always seem to bring out both the best and (more often) the worst in people. Thus, while the harnessing of the atom brought a potential source of nearly limitless energy, it also brought the reality and threat of massive destruction. This pattern has been repeated throughout history, and once again we are experiencing it in the Internet and its most public facet, the World Wide Web.
So it came to pass, that this past week saw two major items of news regarding battles over cyberspace. These stories sat virtually side-by-side in the headlines, and it is a wonder they didn't cause a matter/antimatter explosion.
On Monday, February 1, U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed issued a preliminary injunction to stop the enforcement of a law that would require pornographers on the web to collect some form of age verification before allowing access to explicit material. Reed expressed "sympathy" for the law's intent, but said that free speech concerns overruled the need to protect minors from such material.
A mere 24 hours later, a federal jury awarded $107 million dollars to Planned Parenthood from a group operating an anti-abortion web site which listed the names and addresses of abortionists. In this case, apparently, free speech is to be usurped so that "doctors" who perform abortions can be free from harsh criticism from people whose religious convictions lead them to believe that abortion ends an innocent human life as surely as a deadly shooting spree in a school yard.
I have no doubt that our nation's Founding Fathers would be shocked to tears to find out how our courts are now using the First Amendment to defend the indefensible, yet cast it aside in order to punish questionable activity that defies the politically-correct status quo. I know I have personally never seen such a stark example of hypocrisy in our justice system.
Requiring some proof of age for adults to view pornography in no way violates the First Amendment rights of pornographers. In fact, most of them already require some sort of verification to enter the site, but still provide explicit "teaser" images on pages accessible without any security check. All this law would do is force them to put those images behind the same curtain as their main site. Some amateur pornographers or cyber-exhibitionists may not have the means to comply, but this is hardly the type of "speech" that needs to be vigilantly protected. Posting explicit images on the web where they are easily accessible to minors is not far removed from public indecency, which is certainly not protected as "free speech."
On the other side of the coin, the federal jury had no qualms about free speech in punishing the pro-life web site owners. Despite the fact that the web site contained no suggestion of violence against abortionists, they found them guilty of inciting such violence. There was absolutely no link between the site's authors and deaths of several abortionists, yet the jury found them liable. I do not agree with the pro-life activists' decision to publish the names and addresses of abortionists, and it was downright offensive for them to "mark off" the names of those who were killed. Still, the only things they posted were publicly available information, added to their own political beliefs.
Neither of these cases has seen its end. I still have hope that their outcomes will be reversed. Nevertheless, it is a dark day for America when the banner of "free speech" is extended to those who prey on children, but not to those who (politically popular or not) believe they are protecting them.