Support Free Speech

**Why [was] this Web Page Black?**

This page is a protest against new laws which weaken the right of free speech for residents of the United States.

The recently passed Telecommunications Act of 1996 makes a wide variety of speech illegal on the Internet. It doesn't matter if this speech takes place in public forums, wide broadcast media, or private conversation - any and all of these formats can can lead to hundreds of thousand of dollars in fines, as well as jail time. Worse yet, the law only vaguely defines many of the offenses, leaving it up to local jurisdictions to interpret the law.

What is illegal?

To start with, it's illegal to discuss how or where one can get an abortion. Further, anything which can be defined as "indecent" or "patently offensive" by community standards is illegal. Finally, words of the sort which are no longer allowed on broadcast television are no longer allowed on the Internet - even if they are used in a private conversation between consenting adults.

Can I be prosecuted?

The amount of material on the Internet and the vagueness of the new law make it hard to tell who can be prosecuted, but a better question to ask is who will be prosecuted. Is it illegal to post nude pictures? How about to send email with curse words to a friend? Sections of the bible discuss how to get an abortion, and books that you can get in any bookstore may or may not be deemed obscene depending on what jurisdiction they are viewed from.

Perhaps the worst part of this law is that it does not establish any harder guidelines than "indecency" and "community standards." This leaves the door wide open for someone in another part of the country to extradite and prosecute you for material that is perfectly legal in your own neighborhood. This makes it even harder to know ahead of time whether you will be violating the law or not.

Why was the law passed?

Supporters of the law claim that it is necessary to protect children from child pornographers. However, this law does nothing more to protect children than existing laws already did, but restricts the free speech rights of consenting adults much more than ever before.

The fact that this law applies to online communications is especially relevant - the law's supporters have pitched the law as applying to broadcast style media (such as a web site, or similarly, a TV station), while the law has its most severe effect on personal communication. If the Internet is the future of public and private communication, then this law has a lot more relevance to society than what it supposedly does to prevent child pornography.

Consider the clause regarding information about abortion - the Internet is a safe, anonymous and easy way to get information. However, it is no longer legal to discuss where or how one can get an abortion, and many groups that provide family planning services and medical information are now being censored.

Is this law legal?

The bill passed both houses of congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton - it is legal and binding. Several civil rights groups have sued to overturn the law, but this does not mean that their suits will succeed. While the first ammendment says that congress shall make no law abridging the right to free speech, this does not mean that the courts will side one way or the other on the issue.

The Department of Justice has stated that they will not prosecute until there is a court decision on the legality of the law, but that does not mean that smaller jurisdictions cannot prosecute, nor does it mean that the Department of Justice will not prosecute in the future. It is an election year right now, it is not clear what the executive branch will want to prosecute next year.

It can happen here.

This law changes the rules of society for everyone who uses the Internet or online services and sets a bad precedent for politicians to control what you can and cannot say. Ignoring the problem won't go away, and letting this law stay on the books will only lead to more censorship of politically unpopular speech. The only way to prevent this sort of law in the future is to send a clear mandate to our politicians to never pass this kind of law again.

It's easy to think that oppression and censorship will not happen in the US - after all, it hasn't happened before, and the people passing this law aren't tyrants, just misguided - but just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. Most oppressive regimes are controlled by people who believe they are doing the best for society, and all oppressive regimes control the speech of their citizens.

What can I do? Write letters to your senators and representatives urging them to vote for new bills which will overturn the censorship measures of the Telecommunications Act. Talk to your friends and neighbors about the act, and how it censors everyone without doing anything more to protect children. Practice civil disobedience. Print out this document and pass it around. Become politically involved in your local government elections, and make it clear to candidates that you consider free speech to be a very important issue.

[EFF Blue Ribbon Campaign] 24 Hours of Democracy:
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