Mr. Gingrich Failed to Defend the Internet

On June 14, the U.S. Senate adopted Senator Exon's dismal Communications Decency Act. This legislation, drafted in almost perfect ignorance of the First Amendment, would have expanded existing obscenity laws by adding a new (or really, resuscitated) category of "indecency".

In the history of American law and social policy, indecency is a kind of hydra that has been repeatedly dueled and vanquished by the First Amendment, until it has only a few heads left. These heads haunt broadcast television and radio, subject to F.C.C. jurisdiction on the rationale that scarcity--limited bandwidth--justifies greater government intervention. Decency laws of the past, now killed by constitutional litigation, have been used to extirpate the works of Zola, Balzac and Freud, stamp out sex education, prevent the distribution of movies showing racial integration, and jail people displaying slogans like "Fuck the Draft."

If Senator Exon had had his way, this could all happen again on the Internet. Santayana's old saw, repeated until almost a cliche, really holds true: we are doomed to repeat if we do not remember.

Well, just as the Senate passed the Decency Act by a vote of 86 to 14, a new sherriff rode into town: Mr. Gingrich, loudly declaring that the Act was unconstitutional. Any such statement by the powerful Speaker of the House is tantamount to a promise that the Decency Act would not be alive when the sun rose, and it wasn't. On August 4, the House passed its version of the telecommunications bill, without even a mention of the Decency Act, which had died quietly out of sight. The House's answer to Exon's bill was the Cox-Wyden amendment, which promised in stentorian tones to honor, love and support the Internet, and keep the government and, in particular, the F.C.C. out of it. Even Cox-Wyden passed without any debate, without even being mentioned in the August 4 discussion; Mr. Gingrich indeed runs his town with an iron hand.

But the sherriff had either made a side deal in the back of the saloon, or some criminal activity in town escaped his eagle eye, because another amendment to the telcom bill contradicts the intent of Cox-Wyden and will do about 80% of the damage that the Decency Act would have. This amendment makes it a crime, subject to five years in prison, to use a computer to transmit to a minor any matter "depicting or describing" any sexual or excretory act or organ. And it explicitly reaffirms the great tragedy of the obscenity laws, that local standards rule the world, so that Memphis, Tennessee can impose its views on the entire Net. If, complaining of my lot in life, I make a statement on these pages like, "I guess its my turn to sniff shit for a while," and a minor reads it, and people in Memphis think its patently offensive, off I go to prison for five years.

Most people probably think that Mr. Gingrich is a hero of the Internet--they know he killed the Decency Act, but don't know about the "excretory" amendment to the telcom bill. You can write to Mr. Gingrich at to let him know your views.