The owners of the US-based 'annoy.com' public access Web site went to court on Monday to defend the "freedom of indecent speech" by asking for the remaining sections of the outlawed Communications Decency Act (CDA) to be overturned.
San Francisco-based Apollo Media issued a lawsuit against US Attorney General Janet Reno in January as part of a challenge against a a section of the CDA, which imposes fines or a two-year prison term for anyone who transmits a comment or image "which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person."
The US Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that parts of the CDA were unconstitutional - specifically citing those sections that imposed stiff penalties on Internet pornographers - but other sections survived, including one that makes it illegal to transmit "indecent" material "with intent to annoy".
The annoy.com Web site allows visitors to send electronic mail anonymously to various public officials and public figures. By Apollo Media's own admission, the site contains "some material of social or political value that is sexually explicit or uses vulgar language that some persons in some communities might consider indecent."
William Bennett Turner, of Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell & Quinn, one of the First Amendment experts representing Apollo Media, told the court: "The government's nosing around in Apollo Media's business, demanding to know, for example, how its online speech has been 'chilled', is totally unnecessary. The CDA 'annoy' provision is unconstitutional on its face."
A representative of the Justice Department - which was behind the CDA - said that the remit of the section did not apply to firms like Apollo Media - only to obscene communications. He added that the surviving parts of the CDA simply tackle the issue of personal harrassment in the digital age.
But Apollo Media fears that, without a specific court ruling, federal prosecutors might impose their own interpretation of the law regardless. Clinton Fein, Apollo Media's president, warned: "We are witnessing a lack of a coherent understanding of the medium, which essentially validates our initial claim that these provisions unduly subject content providers, service providers and average citizens to unnecessary intrusion by government goons."
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