For example, The Music Man portrays a community's fearful stampede to condemn the new game in town. Remember the song?
"Oh, we've got trouble - right here in River City - with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for POOL! Gotta figger out a way t'keep the young ones moral after school."Professor Harold Hill cynically played on parental fears to create gainful employment for himself! It was an elegant con; the frightening aspect is how easily he succeeded in sweeping almost an entire town along with him. [Oh, well, it was only a movie - and a musical at that!]
The "Comstock Law" was later applied to Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Steinbeck, among others. Comstock was diligent in his self-appointed task: he destroyed 120 tons of literature. George Bernard Shaw coined the term "Comstockery" when Mrs. Warren's Profession came under attack, but he also cheerfully noted that the attention significantly improved ticket sales.
In the midst of this nineteenth century hysteria, a librarian wrote Mark Twain to apologize for submitting to pressure to remove Huckleberry Finn from the children's collection in the Brooklyn Public Library. Twain replied,
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old.Art and literature are not the only targets of overzealous censorship; political ideas can be threatening as well. A cartoon depicts a teacher looming over a seated student, proclaiming "This textbook is soft on communism!" Asked to define communism, she states, "It's a totalitarian form of government that controls what people can read and won't let them think for themselves!" When the student asks what she plans to do about the book, she gives the historically appropriate answer: "BAN IT!"
Senator Joseph McCarthy's flamboyant and highly publicized charges of communist subversion in the federal government dominated the national news for four years in the early 1950's. Variously described as a hero and a demagogue, McCarthy relied on scare tactics and unfounded allegations to dramatize his concerns about the threat of communism to the American way of life. As early as 1950, a New York Times cartoon predicted that he would paint himself into a corner (with red paint, of course). Ironically, another "new technology" brought about his downfall; his polemics could not withstand the daily scrutiny of televised hearings. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible dramatically compares McCarthy's tactics with the Salem witch trials, another situation where fear and ignorance led a community to take drastic action to rid itself of supposed evil.
How did Congress finally deal with Senator McCarthy? They banned HIM! And what does recent history tell us about the horrible specter of communism?
The Communications Decency Act is merely the most recent example of another misguided Congress sucked into the vortex of bad lawmaking by the rhetoric of fear and ignorance. On February 1st, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act almost immediately after it was reported out of committee. As soon as President Clinton signed the bill into law, thousands of World Wide Web pages were turned black for 48 hours to protest its sweeping censorship provisions.
Senator James Exon, whose amendment sparked the eventual adoption of language prohibiting the distribution of "indecent" material over the Internet, argues that the law is intended to protect children from hard-core pornography. The problem with laws like these, and Comstock's, is that they are invariably applied to a much broader scope of material than their authors intended. There is no legal definition of "indecent" in the U.S., much less the international community in which the Internet operates. The statute could be applied to artistic works like The Sistine Chapel, reference material provided by the National Library of Medicine, and Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade, as well as the usual literary targets, including Huckleberry Finn.
A coalition of civil libertarians, privacy activists and Internet supporters immediately filed suit to restrain the government from enforcing the "indecency" provisions of the Communications Decency Act based on three affronts to the First Amendment: unconstitutional expansion of federal authority, vagueness and overbreadth, and failure to use the "least restrictive means" to regulate speech. Opponents of the CDA contend that parents - rather than governments - should be responsible for the supervision of their children's reading and viewing. Mike Godwin, counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that "there are already software tools to help parents shield their children from inappropriate material and these tools are vastly more flexible and effective than this ill-considered legislation." A federal judge in Philadelphia issued a temporary restraining order on February 15th, and on February 22nd, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to initiate investigation or prosecute under the "indecency" or "patently offensive" censorship provisions of the Telecommunications Act while the case continues in the courts.
Also on February 22nd, thousands of Internet users contributed essays on freedom of speech and freedom of choice in a demonstration of 24 Hours of Democracy. And thousands continue to support Free Speech Online by decorating their web pages with blue ribbons.
Cartoonist Scott Adams recently depicted the futility of this exercise in prescriptive morality this way: when Dilbert announced his intention to create a "new technology to prevent kids from seeing smut on the Internet" (1/23/96), Dogbert replied, "So, you're pitting your intelligence against the collective sex drive of all the teenagers who own computers?" Dilbert asked, defensively (or obtusely), "What is your point?" Dogbert countered with another (rhetorical) question: "Did you know that if you put a little hat on a snowball it can last a long time in hell?"
The unanticipated consequences of relying on electronic filtering are epitomized by a story on the front page of last Saturday's Oregonian: a child whose parents had installed SurfWatch complained that she was unable to access the kids' page at the White House. Officials who investigated found the indecent word "couples" used to describe the Clintons and the Gores! Of course the web weavers at Sexton Mountain School in Beaverton aren't too happy with SurfWatch either.
Television assaulted our eyes and ears with nightly coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial; isn't spousal abuse indecent? A tabloid headlining Lisa Marie's accusations about "Jacko's Boys" occupied the "news" rack next to the annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated at my family-oriented grocery store last week. The same issue of Time Magazine which featured "The Net's Strange Day" describes the phenomenal success of Reviving Ophelia, a best seller about the hazards of female adolescence, and the phenomenal multimillion dollar war between actress/"trash" novelist Joan Collins and her publishers.
Civil libertarians argue that the Communications Decency Act would criminalize Internet material that is legal in other formats. Or is the Internet merely the latest rallying point for those who wish to regulate all forms of expression? In Utah last week, the Salt Lake City School Board banned all student clubs to avoid chartering one intended to provide support for gay and lesbian teens. Then the state legislature passed a hastily drafted law prohibiting teachers from condoning illegal conduct in schools. Lake Oswego parents are protesting the inclusion of Playboy in the local public library's collection.
Librarians approach this issue in the context of their lengthy experience confronting censorship. About the time Senator Joe McCarthy was gearing up his campaign to save the American government from the threat of communism, the American Library Association adopted its first version of the Library Bill of Rights (1948). Two statements are directly relevant to the current debate:
Most [attempts at suppression] rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary citizen, by exercising critical judgment, will accept the good and reject the bad. . . .Senators Exon and Gorton, and their supporters, very definitely intend to coerce the taste of others, constrain what adults may read, and inhibit artistic expression.
There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.
We consult with parents before we take their children off school grounds; we ask them to sign a field trip permission form. So, one approach to using the Internet in schools is to treat it as a "virtual field trip" - to cyberspace! We can inform parents of the potential dangers, and indemnify ourselves by asking them to sign a permission form.
Schools typically have codes of conduct which govern student behavior at school and on field trips. In my school district, these rules are referred to as "Student Rights and Responsibilities". Most schools treat Internet access as a revocable privilege, and have developed acceptable use policies with which students must agree to comply. Discussing the terms of the acceptable use policies with students allows us to introduce positive concepts like ethics, responsibility and copyright.
Common Elements of Acceptable Use Policies
Acceptable use policies commonly include the following elements:
Users have the right to:
When confronting issues pertaining to using the Internet in schools, we can use the metaphor of a "virtual field trip" to guide our thinking about student safety and parental permission. We can devise acceptable use policies which explicitly detail students' rights and responsibilities, and use them as a teaching tool to guide discussions of personal ethics in an electronic environment.
Barlow, John Perry.
A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451.
Child Safety on the Information Highway
Kadie, Carl. Sex, Censorship, and the Internet
Orwell, George. 1984.
24 Hours of Democracy
American Library Association Policies
Blue Ribbon Campaign
Electronic Frontier Foundation