11.0083 censorship: CDA decision

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 3 Jun 1997 23:52:50 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 83.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 2 Jun 1997 22:51:06 -0400 (EDT)
From: Donald Theall <cudft@trentu.ca>
Subject: Re: 11.0020 CIEC; Monday MOO

Almost three weeks ago, Willard raised the question of the
forthcoming CDA decision anticipated from the U.S. Supreme
Court in the near future. At the time I was undergoing surgery and
thus not able to reply, but on returning I was surprised to see that
there had been no response. While the results of the decision will
only legally affect the United States, the issue itself and the U.S.
approach towards it has implications everywhere, for it is bound to
play a role in discussions about the free flow of information on the
Internet globally.

Currently I am working on an article on Censorship and the
Internet to be published in a book on Censorship in Canada. In the
course of researching and organizing this article, it has become
apparent that certain decisions seemingly directed towards the
prohibition of material deemed dangerous to certain sectors of
society (e.g., children), or which might lead to dangerous actions
against some group (e.g., hate literature) could have a profound
impact on the normally expected freedom of inquiry within the
research community -- that means us!

If the CDA were to pass in its present form and similar
legislation to be adopted in other countries as well, the danger to
freedom of research inquiry -- in fact even to the more general
public's freedom of inquiry and expression -- is apparent, as the
U.S. District Court made clear in its decision which found the CDA
legislation in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. But even if the CDA were to be rejected in full or in
part by the Supreme Court of the United States, it is apparent that
there will still be a strong movement to enforce legislatively the use
of filtering software in public institutions, as well as providing it for
parents in the home. Debates concerning the use of filtering
software in public libraries have already surfaced in many areas
(e.g. Boston) and in the course of exploring those controversies, it
has become apparent that, in spite of the right of any user of a
library to have free and unhindered access to all information,
whoever controls the filtering software is making decisions which,
without being clearly communicated to those using the facilities,
may well block them from sources of important information without
their even being aware of it. Such sites as those of the Electronic
Freedom Foundation at M.I.T. have presumably been blocked by
some widely used filtering software.

It is arguable -- apart from libraries and other public
institutions -- that on a variety of grounds this could also be
extended to colleges and universities: protection of students under
18 years of age, support of presumed possibilities of harassment
and dissemination of hate literature. I am trying to avoid getting
into arguing the issues raised by Stanley Fish and others justifying
censorship (although they obviously are extremely problematic) by
raising only the issue of the university research community
retaining the same free, open, and uninhibited research sources
that it currently experiences. It is conceivable that such filtering
could prevent students, and even faculty from access to crucial

The CDA issue and accompanying actions by other
countries and international bodies to control the Internet must raise
questions and concerns among humanists as well as all university
researchers. Therefore, the profound silence after Willard's query
has been one of those intriguing silences which we humanists are
always tempted to interminably interpret. I realize the complexity of
the problem and the difficulty in dealing with it briefly online is a
factor in such silence, but I suspect there are many others. Yet to
a community such as we humanists, who instinctively query any
censorship, this is an issue of major importance.

I would be curious to know the opinions of others on the
issues posed by the CDA controversy currently receiving major
attention in the world arena -- from Germany to Singapore and from
China to the UN -- since it is bound to have some effects on our
university communities. These may be minor and short-term; or
they may be major and create a long-term battle to maintain
essential rights which we have already achieved.

So that some of our colleagues do not think I am being
elitist, I believe the same freedoms that we have had in the
universities, should be guaranteed to all. But I am raising here the
specific problems presented to freedom of research and inquiry,
which I believe humanists need to discuss among themselves. The
broader issues are already being vigorously discussed in many
other electronic forums, but there has been relatively little
discussion as to the specific potential threats to the community of
scholars. Perhaps a serious discussion of the harm that even a
little control of research inquiry and academic freedom can do to
academic integrity would provide an additional basis to defend
these values for the broader global community.

Donald Theall
University Professor Emeritus
Trent University

On Wednesday, May 11th Willard McCarty wrote:

The U.S. Supreme Court is due to hand down its decision on the infamous
Communications Decency Act in June or July of this year. Meanwhile,
information about the hearings on 19 March of this year are available from
the Web site of the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), "a
broad group of Internet users, library groups, publishers, online service
providers, and civil liberties groups", <http://www.ciec.org/>. Further
pointers and comments welcome.