From Issue 3.6 - Summer 1997
On June 26 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a federal law that restricted transmission of indecent materials to minors using computers. The court ruled that the law was an unconstitutional restraint of free speech.
The CDA became law in February 1996, and was immediately challenged by two groups of plaintiffs including the ACLU, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, and hundreds of individual Internet users. In June 1996, a District Court in Philadelphia ruled that the measure was unconstitutional. The Department of Justice appealed, and the Supreme Court heard the case on March 19.
The Court ruled that the vagueness of the terms "indecent" and "patently offensive" make it impossible for content providers to know what material they could legally transmit, resulting in a chilling effect on free expression. The justices stated, "we have made it perfectly clear that sexual expression which is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment... the fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it."
The Supreme Court rejected the government's claim that the Internet was comparable to television or radio. Users must specifically request access to information on the Internet. While a child might accidentally turn on the Playboy Channel, she would be unlikely to accidentally come across Bianca's Smut Shack or the Wonderful World of Fetishes on the web. In a partial dissent, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and William Rehnquist stated that some "cyberzoning" may be permissible.
The Court further found that current technology does not allow effective age verification, and stated that, "In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another." The justices also recognized that traditional notions of community standards do not apply in cyberspace, and that "any communication available to a nationwide audience will be judged by the standards of the community most likely to be offended by the message."
The Supreme Court recognized the unique democratic nature of the Internet, stating that "any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox." The lead attorney in the case, Bruce Ennis, called the decision "the death knell for this kind of content restriction."
In the weeks following the Court's decision, President Clinton and Vice President Gore held a summit on parental control of online material. The administration came around to agreeing with the plaintiffs claim that parents, not the government, should control what their children can access over the Internet.
Sylvia Wahl, a Montreal dominatrix who was recently accused of running a bawdy house, failed to appear for her June 16 court case. Wahl's lawyer said she was in Germany and was too ill to attend the trial.
The Canadian court has now issued an arrest warrant for Wahl and are seeking to have her arrested in Germany. Wahl provided professional dominance services, but no sexual activities.
Meanwhile, Terri-Jean Bedford, an Ontario dominatrix, has been told that a Canadian prosecutor is planning to bring her three-year old bawdy house case back to court. Last month the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal, in which she claimed that the charges against her were too vague.
Canada's "bawdy house" laws prohibit keeping a venue for the purposes of prostitution or unspecified "indecent acts." The laws have been used to prosecute a wide variety of venues, including gay bathhouses.
In more news from north of the border, Canada Customs -- infamous for the Little Sisters case in which gay-themed material was selectively barred from entering the country -- has banned the instructional S/M video "Bullwhip: Art of the Single-Tail Whip," produced by Boudoir Noir magazine and starring BN co-publishers Robert and Mary Dante. The video was actually produced in Canada and approved by the Ontario Film Board. Canada Customs agents got their hands on it when a U.S. purchaser who accidentally received two copies of the video attempted to return one to BN. According to a letter from Canada Customs to Robert Dante, "If an item contains bondage or sadomasochism, even if it's consensual, it is usually prohibited by Customs." Dante is currently exploring legal options.
In the wake of last month's fracas over censorship of user pages by America Online, Cuir Underground has learned that the GeoCities service also censors users' websites. Several sites have been censored for sexually explicit or S/M-related content. In some cases, users were not informed before their pages were deleted. GeoCities content guidelines ban nudity, sites that provide links to erotica, and S/M images and writing, which the service regards as "physical harm." In addition to the censored sites, several other pervert websites, including the Deviant's Dictionary, have relocated in protest (the DD can now be found at www.queernet.org/deviant).