Senior Judge Lowell Reed Jr. of the Federal District Court has struck down the 1998 Child Protection Act, under which “commercial Web publishers” would have been required to procure proof of age from their viewers (like, getting credit card information from them, not just having them push a button that says “yes, I am 17 or older”) before allowing them to access material deemed “harmful to minors” by “contemporary community standards.” Penalties included a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison.
Judge Reed ruled that the law was ineffective, overly broad, and at odds with free speech rights. The line of his that everyone’s quoting is “Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection.”
The various purity-of-essence lobbies are grumbling about it, of course. Most prominently featured so far is Donna Rice Hughes (yes, that Donna Rice), who’s made a career out of Protecting Our Children from Internet Smut. Her line, quoted yesterday in the NYTimes, is “It’s a very frustrating decision. We have an epidemic problem of kids accessing pornographic material online.”
I suppose that depends on your definitions of epidemic, kids, and pornographic material. What I mostly hear kids are accessing are online comics (including manga) and fanfic. Both genres have their startlingly steamy moments, but they’re not the eee-vile predatory commercial smut the law supposedly targeted.
I used to have a dismissive attitude toward reductio ad absurdum interpretations of the possibly consequences of this or that law. Watching the nonstop misuse of the Patriot Acts has cured me of that.
I’m happy this law has been struck down. Too many of us have advertisements on our websites for me to feel comfortable with laws that target “commercial web publishers.” “Contemporary community standards” can mean anything a political pressure group wants it to mean. Same goes for “harmful to minors.” And the legal definition of “publish” is broader than most people imagine.