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Opposites unite against Verizon 'censorship'

As the presidents of NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Christian Coalition of America, we are on opposite sides of almost every issue. But when it comes to the fundamental right of citizens to participate in the political process, we're united — and very, very worried.

Free speech shouldn't stop when you turn on your computer or pick up your cell phone. But recent actions by the nation's biggest communications corporations should be of grave concern to all who care about public participation in our democracy, particularly our leaders in Congress.

Last month, Verizon Wireless refused to approve NARAL Pro-Choice America's application for a text-messaging "short code," a program that enables people to voluntarily sign up to receive updates by texting a five-digit code. When NARAL Pro-Choice America protested, the nation's second-largest wireless carrier initially claimed the right to block any content "that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory."

After news of Verizon's censorship hit the front page of The New York Times and sparked a public outcry, the company quickly backpedaled. Verizon issued an apology and blamed the blocking on a "dusty internal policy," while still reserving the right to block text messages in the future at its discretion.

When it comes to censoring free speech, sorry just isn't good enough. Whatever your political views — conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life — it shouldn't be up to Verizon to determine whether you receive the information you requested. Why should any company decide what you choose to say or do over your phone, your computer or your BlackBerry? Technologies are converging in our communications system, but the principles of free expression and the rights of all Americans to speak without intervention should remain paramount.

This issue is broader than one organization, one company or one topic. The issue is how communications companies can believe they have the authority to block content in the first place.

Both of our groups, with other organizations across the political spectrum, are working to raise our members' awareness of the potential for discrimination in communications and of the impact it could have on how we engage in political advocacy in an ever-evolving technological world.

We're asking Congress to convene hearings on whether existing law is sufficient to guarantee the free flow of information and to protect against corporate censorship. The public deserves an open and fair conversation about this important issue.

If corporations can't tell Americans what to say on a phone call, they shouldn't be able to control content or tell us what to say in a text message, an e-mail or anywhere else.

That's something all Americans — regardless of their political views — can agree on.

Nancy Keenan is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Roberta Combs is president of the Christian Coalition of America.