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Freedom Of Expression On The Internet

3977 words - 16 pages


This paper addresses whether we should censor or block access to websites with controversial material. It looks at the issue from several sides: The relevant US laws that are in place, how censorship is used at the university and corporate levels, how other countries are attempting censorship, and finally what I feel about the topic.

Given all that I have read in preparing this paper, I have come to the conclusion that without a set of globally-accepted rules, we should not be censoring the Internet except where these rules are being broken. We could perhaps get agreement for those things that are obviously illegal and unethical (child pornography), but what about other areas such as gambling (is it legal but unethical or visa versa?). There would be very few rules we could agree upon if 100% global agreement is a requirement, and I believe it is.

II. America's View

A. The Laws

The United States government has enacted (or attempted to enact) several laws regarding freedom of speech and the internet. A short overview of these follows.

1.The First Amendment

Given how short the First Amendment is, it has caused a surprising amount of controversy and an untold number of new laws and regulations. The text simply states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”[i]

The First Amendment has been enforced at different levels depending on the type of media itself. Television and radio are both broadcast media and are under strict government regulation as to content (for example, advertising cigarettes is not legal). The content of cable TV shows has much less regulation than regular TV broadcasts (hence shows like The Sopranos can appear on HBO, but not on NBC), but they still have more regulation than print media. Print media has the least regulation and the most freedom of speech protection.[ii]

However, in terms of how freedom of speech applied to the Internet, the government is still struggling to come to grips with what they should or should not try to restrict.

One important point to remember is that while the First Amendment is specifically designed to protect offensive or controversial speech (because who needs to protect speech that no one disagrees with?), it does not protect libelous nor obscene material. Obscene material is defined as that which community standards finds offensive.[ii] So one question to consider is, within which community does the Internet live?

2.Communications Decency Act 1996

The Communications Decency Act, as part of a longer Telecommunication Act, basically states that anyone who uses the Internet to make any “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs”...

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