Chapter VIII

The New Comstock

As we explain on the first page of the introduction, Comstock was the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The U.S. Postal Service designated him as a special unpaid agent, giving him the right to go into any post office in the nation and open mail he believed to be obscene. Comstock lobbied Congress by entering its halls with a sack and dumping the contents on a table: obscene photographs, abortion aids, aphrodisiac powders--all of which had passed through the U.S. mail. His successors banned "filthy" books being disseminated via the mail network--Henry Miller, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Honore Balzac, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, Vladimir Nabokov...

The modern-day Comstock is Sentator James Exon. Instead of a sack, he prowls the halls of Congress with his Blue Book.

On June 9, 1995 he stood up in front of the Senate and waved his blue book of smut.

So Senator Exon introduced a bill which would wipe all forms of "indecency" from the global computer networks: the Communications Decency Act. He proposed a return to the days of Anthony Comstock by restoring a long-discredited indecency standard, which the CDA made no attempt to define. He borrowed language from the Communications Act of 1934, which regulated telephone and radio broadcasts.

This is the crux of the legal debate over the Constitutionality of banning certain forms of speech on the Internet. Exon will tell you that it is like television and can be legally regulated in the same way. The courts, however, allowed this regulation because the number of channels were "scarce" and the broadcast media "pervasive." The Internet does not have the same problems of scarcity and pervasiveness. It can handle countless sites, all reached through the searching of the user--rather than a few, pumped into the head of the passive viewer. It is more like printed media, which are afforded the full rights and protections of the First Amendment.

The CDA disappeared from sight for a while, then reappeared as a part of the Telecommunications Reform Act, signed into law last February. Encompassing the vague parameters outlined by Exon's original CDA to enforce "decency," the new CDA is really the child of Exon--the new Anthony Comstock.

Recent Updates

The CDA was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in February. It made it illegal to offer up anything which depicts or describes sexual or excretory functions or organs in a patently offensive manner, according to local standards. (For more on local standards setting the standard for all of cyberspace, see Memphis Rules.)

The CDA was opposed by a coalition headed up by the ACLU. Jonathan was one of the plantiffs in this case.

On June 12 the panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia struck down the law as unconstitutional. The next day Exon issued a press release.

Relevant links