Cyber Rights '97 Rally
Fri., Sept. 19, 1997
Joe C. Thompson Conference Center
Last June the United States Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that portions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) were unconstitutional. This was the culmination of an ongoing struggle in which free speech advocates and their supporters had sought to suppress restrictive legislation of Internet content, only to see the legislation attached to the sure-win Omnibus Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Why would anyone want to restrict content? The ostensible reason for the legislation was to protect children from exposure to pornography. However, the legislation was so broad and vague that it would have been a crime, for instance, for one minor to tell another to "get fucked," if the message was delivered online. It would also have criminalized the posting of excerpts from literary works like James Joyce's Ulysses or J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye if these works were placed where minors could access them.
Supporters of the legislation were no in way obscure about their intent. When I interviewed him in a HotWired forum, former district attorney Bruce Taylor, one proponent of the law and perhaps author of some of its content, declared his opinion that existing obscenity laws were not enough because they were insufficient to suppress nonobscene "soft core" content. Opponents of the law argued that the CDA was too broad and too vague in what it would restrict, and that its effect would be to stifle free speech
on the Internet, which had been heralded as a quantum advance in communications technology.
Following the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the censorious portions of the CDA, free speech activists felt with their sense of victory an anxiety about What Comes Next. Will there be renewed legislative efforts to restrict speech, or to mandate filtering or ratings requirements? Will libraries and other government institutions implement software to filter Internet access? Will other countries, lacking strong free speech protections, enact restrictive legislation?
Cyber Rights '97, sponsored by the Texas Telecommunications Policy Institute, EFF-Austin, ACLU of Texas, UT's Government Department, and the law firm of George, Donaldson, and Ford, will facilitate exploration of the post-CDA landscape by prominent supporters of free speech online. Speakers include EFF counsel Mike Godwin, ACLU attorney Ann Beeson, local attorney Pete Kennedy, Ed Cavazos of Interliant, Gene Crick of MAIN, David Smith of Central Texas Civil Liberties Union and EFF-Austin, Sharon Strover of the Texas Telecommunications Policy Institute, and researcher Rich MacKinnon as moderator. This important conference foreshadows the major Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, which will be held in Austin next February. -- Jon Lebkowsky