The would-be Internet police are playing a tricky game these days: The U.S. Supreme Court rebuked the political ploy to "protect" kids from smut, the Communications Decency Act. So now, Big Brother is looking for a flunky to assassinate the First Amendment.
In a ruse so transparent it needs a camisole, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wants to pressure Internet providers -- private businesses are not subject to constitutional strictures -- to carry out his free-speech hit. In September, Hatch said Congress should "encourage" Internet providers to kill hate sites, offering them "immunity" from civil action in return.
But a powerful, non-government actor is leading the no-hate charge. In the wake of recent white-supremacist murders, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, is leading a crusade to pressure Internet providers to dump "hate" content, such as the bigoted rhetoric of the World Church of the Creator site.
Cooper said in an interview that Internet providers "didn't create the problems" but need to be "partners" in the fight against it. "We don't need each company to become an expert on the issues; we need them to set policy," he said last week. He added that parents such as single mothers need extra help to protect their kids from Web hate.
The anti-hate Mafia needs a quick refresher course in the First Amendment. Just because speech is high-tech doesn't mean it is less protected than when it is uttered aloud or printed on paper -- even if the speech is distasteful or even scary. That is, unless it crosses a distinct line into a clear, specific threat -- a line Hatch and Cooper gloss in public comments -- the speech is protected.
"That's the price we pay for robust speech," said American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen. She said in an interview that she is opposed to bigotry, but that the ACLU must defend even the most racist online speech -- much as it fought for the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., a community of Holocaust survivors. "No fight for civil liberties ever stays won," she added.
"I am completely committed to eliminating hate," she added, "but we do not effectively do that by suppressing people's expression."
The government trying to entice Internet companies with offers of financial benefit (immunity) is "unconstitutional," she added, emphasizing that the ACLU is keeping a close eye on Hatch's upcoming legislation. "That's crossing the border, and I have to thank him for doing that in a perverse sense."
One well-wired Colorado Springs family is spreading the word that Hatch and Cooper are treading untenable waters. "Sen. Hatch just doesn't get it. ... ISPs may simply kill anything controversial to avoid litigation," said Barry Fagin, who with his wife, Michele, founded Families Against Internet Censorship and appeared as plaintiffs in the CDA fight. "That would be a terrible blow for families like me who are very interested in exposing their children to controversial material as they mature."
Aaron Brewster, the head of Springs Internet provider CodeNet, said he has no problem with ISPs taking responsibility for the Web sites they host: He "refuses to (knowingly) post any pornographic material whatsoever."
However, Brewster says it, "obvious" to him that here the government "is looking for an avenue to censor speech." It is inappropriate for Washington to expect "untrained business people to make these determinations," he said via e-mail. Because even the courts barely agree what constitutes a threat on the Internet, he added that Hatch's immunity proposal is "irrelevant."
Brewster echoed the sentiments of Strossen and Fagin: "This is a free country, and our freedoms must never be compromised, even when some participants choose irresponsibility."
Freedom is, indeed, the optimum word here. Want free speech? That means supporting the right of bigots to post their back-ass, pathetic ravings on the Internet. That, my friends, is the American way.