When the US Supreme Court begins deliberations next week on whether to uphold a lower court decision striking down the Communi-cations Decency Act, Mike Godwin, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, hopes the discussion will turn to an often-overlooked aspect of the First Amendment.
The 45-word amendment not only prohibits the US government from curtailing citizens' and reporters' rights to say what they please within certain boundaries, but it also safeguards the right of "peaceable assembly", and this is crucial to proving the case against the CDA, said Godwin.
"This is the first mass media ever that allows people to get back some of that sense of community that we have lost," Godwin said during a discussion on constitutional law in cyberspace. While the framers of the Constitution said specifically that citizens can assemble "to petition the government for a redress of grievances", the First Amendment also protects the right to any kind of non-violent assembly, he said.
Godwin drew a distinction between television and radio - which he called "the bastard stepchildren of the First Amendment, entitled to some protections but not others" - and the Internet, saying that legislators often felt compelled to regulate new media, as information can still be freely disseminated via the old ones.
And while there is general agreement that some communications, such as sexually explicit speech, should be regulated on television, the CDA could potentially place a prior restraint on peoples' rights to publish on-line the same types of explicit discussions which are constitutionally protected in books and magazines, he added.
"The courts have never heard a case like this before," Godwin said. "There has never before been a situation where an individual could reach mass audiences just as large newspapers, radio stations and television stations can." If the CDA is upheld, the opportunity to disseminate information inexpensively would vanish for many.
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