Sunday, October 10, 1999


Free Virginia from Internet censorship

Lawmakers sought to protect children from smut, but they transgressed the Constitution in doing so.

   PREDICTABLY, inevitably and correctly, defenders of free speech have haled Virginia into federal court in Alexandria for the General Assembly's misguided enactment last April of a state law imposing censorship on the Internet.

    People for the American Way, a nonprofit civil-rights organization, was joined by 15 Internet-related businesses last week in filing the lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the new law banning commercial material on the Net that could pose potential harm to children.

    According to Larry Ottinger, a lawyer for People for the American Way, the law would require Internet businesses "to self-censor their speech, thus reducing the adult population in cyberspace to reading and communicating only material that is suitable for juveniles."

    To his credit, Gov. Jim Gilmore opposed passage of the legislation during the last legislative session and sought to delay its consideration for a year. For his troubles, he now is named with Attorney General Mark Earley as a defendant in the lawsuit.

    Lawmakers yielded to the ever-present political temptation to fight smut through any means possible, a noble intention but one wrought with peril to the First Amendment as a restraint on the free exchange of ideas.

    Just as a practical matter, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet renders the legislators' efforts unenforceable. No one can control what is placed on the Net from any remote corner of the world.

    More important, though, the very nature of information and its infinite range of contexts resist the neat categorization that would effectively filter out pornographic or other offensive material that should be kept out of children's reach. Certain medical information or references to art and literature useful or necessary to inquiring adults could be deemed by censorious officials under subjective definitions as "illegal."

    Parents, through personal supervision or application of blocking technology, should be the first line of defense against their children's exposure to pornography. Setting up the state as censor of the free exchange of information is constitutionally offensive, and the court should waste no time in so ruling.

Last updated 99/10/11
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