The naked truth

Many Web sites are inappropriate for children, but it isn't the government's place to make sure they aren't accessible to them.


Published: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2004 at 9:10 p.m.
The naked truth is that there are sites on the Internet that are simply not fit for children. The plain truth is that due to the amorphous, and very often anonymous, nature of the "information super highway," government enforcement aimed at making the Internet child friendly is an exercise in futility.
And the simple truth about the Internet is that, as offensive as some of its content may be, its users cannot be arbitrarily denied their First Amendment rights of free speech, even in the interest of shielding children from pornography.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court, for at least the second time, sent that message to Congress. Although the court did not toss out the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, it did send a strong signal that the act was probably unconstitutional. It also told a lower court to consider whether filters installed by parents are preferable to criminal sanctions as a means of protecting children from online porn.
This is the second version of the COPA to be shunted aside by the court. It would have subjected adult Web site operators to fines of $50,000 and jail terms of as much as six months for failing to verify the age of its users, usually by requiring a credit card number.
In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy reasoned that "Filters are less restrictive than COPA. Under a filtering regime, adults without children may gain access to speech they have a right to see without having to identify themselves or provide their credit card information. By enacting programs to promote the use of filtering software, Congress could give parents that ability without subjecting protected speech to severe penalties."
It is true that filters are also imperfect monitoring devices, and that not all parents will take the trouble to monitor their children's use of the Internet. That's unfortunate. But as a practical matter, government censorship of the Internet is an impossible task.
By some accounts, for instance, as much as 40 percent of adult content Web sites originate in foreign countries and are beyond government's reach. Many more Web sites are run by anonymous operators who are difficult to track down. At best, prosecutors might use the law to engage in selective enforcement, thereby promoting the illusion that government is cracking down on Internet porn.
But at what price to the First Amendment? Kennedy's opinion warns that "Content-based prohibitions . . . have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people."
While misguided lawmakers, like Florida's U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, may decry this latest decision as a victory for "pornographers over children," it is really an affirmation of the free speech rights of all Americans.
The naked truth is that much of the Internet is no place for children. The simple truth is that government cannot play the role of super parent, and Internet censor, without shredding the First Amendment.

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