January 13, 1997 12:00 PM PST

ACLU sues for Net freedom

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In its latest attack on Internet censorship, the American Civil Liberties Union tomorrow will file a lawsuit to block a New York Internet decency law.

Passed in September, the New York law penalizes those who make material that is considered "harmful to minors" available online.

The crusade for Net liberties, broad-based in 1996, will be pursued in state and perhaps local courts in 1997. The New York lawsuit is the first step in one of several precedent-setting cases regarding Net regulation and freedom of speech that the ACLU plans to pursue in 1997.

Another battle in the ACLU's war plan for the year will be joined later this month. It will file a lawsuit to repeal a Virginia law that makes it illegal for state employees to view sexually explicit material using state-owned computers. And the organization will continue is its long-standing battle to convince the Supreme Court that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) violates freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Like the CDA, the New York law prohibits the distribution of indecent material to those under the age of 17 over the Internet and through photographs, movies, books, and magazines. It went into effect November 1, and has been vigorously protested both within the state and by national civil-rights groups. The ACLU is seeking a preliminary injuction against the law.

"[It] is unconstitutionally over-broad," Beeson charged last month. "As the lower court found with the CDA, the New York law restricts not only distribution of indecent material to teenagers, but it restricts communication among adults."

The law also violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents states from regulating conduct outside their borders, said the ACLU. According to the law, penalties could apply to material from other states that is accessed by New Yorkers.

Although New York's state law has yet to be challenged, the CDA was ruled unconstitutional by a panel of three federal judges in Manhattan in July.

The ACLU's main plaintiff is the American Library Association. Currently there are 15 plaintiffs named including the New York Library Association and NYC Net, a gay and lesbian Internet service provider.

Eighteen-year-old Bennett Haselton, the founder of Peacefire, a teen anti-Net censorship alliance, was also named a plaintiff in the suit. The ACLU announced the addition of Haselton, who is a junior at Vanderbilt University, last week.

Peacefire is sure to bring attention to the case as it did when it launched a campaign against CYBERsitter, software designed to filter adult-oriented material from underage Net surfers. Haselton charged that CYBERsitter blocked his site and others--such as the National Organization of Women site--that do not contain pornography.

When the CDA was fought in Philadelphia, Haselton said teenagers' right to free speech on the Net was overlooked in the interest of younger minors. He hopes that Peacefire's enlisting in the New York case will help begin to differentiate between "little kids" and young adults.

"The idea that people don't hear swear words until they're age 18 is unreal," he said "The controls under these CDA laws expire once you get up from the computer and walk out into the hall at school."

In the spring, the ACLU will gear up to argue its case against the Communications Decency Act in front of the Supreme Court. The court decided to hear the case on December 9, and arguments are expected to start in March, according to the ACLU.

The CDA imposes penalties on anyone who knowingly makes material that is obscene or indecent available to people under 18 years of age. Those found guilty under the law could be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison and fined up to $250,000. The court could rule to uphold a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the CDA, imposed in June by a Philadelphia federal court in ACLU vs. Reno. The federal court found that the CDA violates First Amendment rights of free speech.

The Supreme Court's case has been heralded as the decision that will determine free speech on the Net.

 

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