March 15, 1996
Law Students Protest
Communications Decency Act
Join a discussion on the Communications Decency Act.
By PAMELA MENDELShey handed out leaflets. They participated in seminars on free speech. And a few symbolically silenced themselves with thick blue tape plastered over their mouths.
Law school students across the country participated in a protest on Thursday against a new law that they say would severely restrict freedom of speech on the Internet and other interactive forums.
"For most of us who have studied Constitutional law, this is a greater issue than the medium itself," Charles J. Glasser, a New York University law student and event organizer, told about 15 students assembled to discuss the issue in a seminar room. "The heart of this is the battle about what people can say."
In addition to students from New York University, students from about 30 other law schools, including Harvard, Georgetown and Florida State universities, had planned corresponding protests, Glasser said. Students were asked to wear blue ribbons, a symbol of the protest, and, if possible, to remain silent for four hours during the day to demonstrate what a world without free speech would be like.
At NYU, about 200 students signed petitions protesting the law, and about 300 blue ribbons were distributed. Glasser could not say precisely how many students nationwide were participating in some way, either by wearing blue ribbons, attending discussions or passing out informational material, but he estimated the number at about 7,500, based on the number who had signed petitions.
The protest took aim at the Communications Decency Act, part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed into law last month. The law contains provisions criminalizing transmission via computer of "indecent" and "patently offensive" sexual material that could be viewed by children.
Opponents say the decency act's language is so broad that it could ban on-line discussions of everything from AIDS to portions of the Bible. Opponents also object to another part of the telecommunication's law, which they say would ban discussion of abortion on the Internet.
The provisions are being challenged in Federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups and individuals. The Justice Department has agreed not to prosecute until the matter is resolved. Hearings before a three-judge panel are scheduled to begin March 21 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.
On Thursday, protesting students said they saw the law as an assault on a communications medium to which young people are accustomed but that many Baby Boomers and older people fail to understand.
"This is the emerging technology and the emerging vehicle of communications," said Joseph K. Leahy, a second-year law student at New York University. "In the 1950's, it was television. In the 1980's, video. In the 1990's, the Internet. This is the medium of the next century. And people who don't realize that are willing to see it suppressed."
Leahy, one of the protesters who had worn blue tape over his mouth, said he spent an hour or two every day on the computer browsing civil liberties materials, among other things.
Kenneth A. Rubenstein, a third-year law student from Woodmere, N.Y., said he feared that the law would limit legitimate discussion in newsgroups devoted to such sensitive issues as sexual abuse and domestic violence.
"I've been watching the Internet develop," said Rubenstein, who is now 25 and first began using the Internet when he was an 18-year- old undergraduate student in computer science. "It's a forum where people discuss all kinds of different issues. To make this questionable or illegal is frightening."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company