A FEDERAL COURT recently upheld the felony convictions of Robert and Carleen Thomas for their computer bulletin board called "Amateur Action: The Nasticist Place on Earth."
The entrepreneurial couple made a mint by selling the unspeakable graphic computer images of children raped by their parents, women tortured, and bestiality scenes.Shocking? Extremely. The ACLU and other "civil liberty" groups tried to defend the Thomases by chanting the "free speech" mantra and howling about "cyber-community" rights, but, thankfully, the court was unmoved. The case marks one small victory for the civil liberties of women and children whose physical and emotional defilement was sold as entertainment, and for the future members of this rising global community.
Do we need other laws? The Thomases were convicted of the federal crime of selling obscenity to adults. But if their customers had been teenagers, and their pornography soft-core, they would be scot-free. That is, before the Communications Decency Act.
The act prohibits the knowing distribution or display of porn to children via computers. It does not prevent adults from receiving or accessing it.
There is nothing novel about this new law. We have long embraced laws that protect children from exploitation by adults. We prohibit adults from selling porn magazines or renting X-rated videos to children. We also require adult bookstores to distance themselves from schools and playgrounds. Do these laws limit adults' freedom? Of course they do. Are they reasonable and necessary anyway? Few would dispute it.
Specifically, the Communications Decency Act protects children from "indecent" material, which the law defines as patently offensive depictions or descriptions of sexual or excretory activities or organs. Some free speech zealots don't like this standard, and are promising a challenge in court. The threat is hardly ominous - the indecency standard has survived numerous court challenges by friends of the porn industry. In fact, just last month the Supreme Court further solidified this standard by again rebuffing a challenge to its constitutionality.
The Communications Decency Act will not criminalize Shakespeare or Joyce. Indecency laws require the courts to evaluate material in its context, taking into account things like literary value. Outside of the courtroom, common sense helps us discern great literature from gratuitous sex. Indecency restrictions do not regulate the message, but the manner in which it is conveyed. As the Supreme Court aptly recognized, few, if any, thoughts exist that cannot be expressed in a less graphic manner. We've managed to understand and apply the concept of indecency for decades, and it's not likely that we shall suffer a collective memory loss now that the CDA is law.
Also, one should remember that the CDA was not drafted in haste. It is the product of protracted research and analysis of relevant law and technology. Its carefully crafted approach holds users liable only for knowing violations of the law.
The CDA also takes into account the diverse roles of online service providers, treating them like common carriers or distributors, depending on their functions.
The objection to the new cyberporn law has less to do with freedom than with arrogance and greed. Most Americans do not have access to the Internet. The online elite would like to keep it that way. They know that when the information superhighway is truly open to all, they will have to live by the rules of a diverse community, respecting all its members, including children.
Cathleen A. Cleaver is director of legal studies at the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy organization.