The Indecent Starr Report

by Jonathan Wallace

The Starr Report, which the Republicans in Congress rushed to the Web, clearly would have qualified as "indecent" under the plain terms of the Communications Decency Act. Ironically, many of the politicians who voted for the CDA also voted to post the Starr Report on the Web.

In the report, we are treated to a number of explicit accounts, of which the cigar incident is the most memorable. I certainly know more now about our President's philosophy of sexual relations than I would ever have wished to.

Why does the Starr Report belong on the Web? It seems to me there are only two ways to categorize this material. It may be purely prurient, and therefore a gross invasion of the President's privacy. In this case, it was placed on the Web only by the pure malice of the President's adversaries.

On the other hand, the Starr Report may give crucial insight into the question of whether President Clinton can be trusted to perform the duties of his office. If this is so, then Congress had a duty (which I'm sure was exercised with a heavy heart) to make this material available to the American people.

The CDA would not have cared: under its plain language, the report was indecent in any event. The act defined indecency as the depiction or description of sexual or excretory acts or organs in a patently offensive fashion. It notably did not add: unless that depiction or description has significant scientific, literary, artistic or political value. The Supreme Court held the CDA unconstititional precisely because it criminalized Web pages pertaining to AIDS, safe sex, the Holocaust---and the sexual antics of presidents.

Is the Starr Report "patently offensive" under the CDA's definition? Clearly it is, to someone---in fact, more than a few someones. The howls of execration directed at the President from certain quarters prove that both the underlying behavior, and the description of it in the report, disgust many Americans.

Publication of the Starr report on the Web confirms that public discourse will sometimes include matters unfit for the mind of a small child. This has always been true. How do you deal with it? There are two theories. Either you eliminate the offensive speech from the world, or you supervise the child. Social conservatives have always been in favor of the former, and so was Congress when it passed the CDA.

The Supreme Court has held many times, from 1957's Butler v. Michigan through the CDA case, that you cannot reduce adults to reading only what is fit for children. But this is precisely what the CDA would have done.

After the CDA failed, the pro-censorship troops concentrated their efforts on mandating the use of blocking software (censorware) in public schools and libraries. If they succeed in forcing a widespread enough adoption of censorware, they will have brought back the CDA through the back door.

Three censorware products, Bess, Smartfilter, and Cybersitter, immediately added the Starr report to their blacklists. Each of these is in use in schools and libraries. In the Lakeview, Ohio high school, the journalism class requested the removal of Bess because it prevented the students from doing writing assignments on AIDS and teenage drug use. Smartfilter was adopted by Utah---in that state, adult patrons of some libraries are now unable to get the Starr report.

If the Starr Report is a matter of public importance and deserves consideration in our discourse, it should be accessible, in every library. If not, Congress shouldn't have put it on the Web in the first place.

Congress can't have it both ways.