The Telecommunications Act of 1996

On Feb. 8, 1996, after a year of controversy, the U.S. government enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, censoring the Internet and other telecommunications networks.

The blatantly unconstitutional law prohibited the transmission of "indecent" material and information about abortions on telecommunications networks such as the Internet. Speech that would be perfectly legal in conversation or in print was banned in the U.S.A.

In June 1997, a panel of federal judges found that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution applies to the Internet, guaranteeing free speech and rendering the indecency provisions of the law null and void.

The Exon Act

On February 1, 1995, U.S. Sen. James Exon (D-Nebraska) introduced the Communications Decency Act. His proposal broadened existing law by subjecting individuals to up to a $100,000 fine or two years in prison for any "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" message transmitted over a telecommunications network either to a minor or with the intention to "annoy, abuse, threaten or harass."

The initial language of the bill additionally made the telecommunications network provider (such as an Internet provider or telephone company) criminally liable for such actions of their users. Later amendments removed this provision, although providers would still be held liable if they are aware of the transmission or if they do not a "reasonable effort" (defined by the FCC) to prevent minors from accessing the material.

In March 1995, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously adopted a version of the Exon proposal as an amendment to the telecommunications reform bill. In June 1995, the Senate attached the Exon amendment to the telecommunications reform bill by a vote of 84-16. On February 1, 1996, the final bill passed the Senate by a vote of 91-5, and the House of Representatives by a vote of 414-16. On February 8, 1996, the bill was signed into law by President Clinton.

The Internet Reaction

The Internet community reacted strongly to the threat. About 115,000 Internet users signed an online petition to stop the Exon bill. When the bill passed, thousands of World Wide Web sites protested, many by participating in a Web blackout (setting web pages' backgrounds to black) sponsored by the Voters Telecommunications Watch and displaying images of a [WWW]blue ribbon. Protesters rallied outside the White House after the bill passed.

The ACLU challenged the law twice in court, first getting the Department of Justice to agree not to enforce the law for seven days while constitutional issues are settled, and then challenging the law in a broad coalition. An online newspaper challenged the law with an indecent commentary on it. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy offered a bill to repeal it.

As a result of the challenges, a panel of federal court judges was convened to decide the issue. On June 12, 1996, the panel unanimously ruled that free speech applies to the Internet, rendering the indecency provisions unenforceable.

The Clinton administration appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 26, 1997, agreed that the indecency provisions were unconstitutional.

The Meaning of It All

This asinine affront to American rights exemplefies the approach of freedom-killers. Would-be tyrants always invoke "the children." The same people who are bankrupting the country; who are ensuring there will be no Social Security remaining when the next generation retires; who are sending American kids overseas to fight foreign wars; who are diminishing in every respect U.S. citizens' birthrights of property and freedom; these are the people who want to protect children!

Note to U.S. voters: this law enjoyed the widespread support of both Democrats and Republicans. Bob Dole voted for the Exon amendment, as did supposed "libertarian-leaning Republicans" like Phil Gramm, Jon Kyl, Connie Mack and Paul Coverdell. Democrats were no better, with the Clinton administration leading the charge. Only Libertarians are worth your vote! The Libertarian Party was the only political party that participated in the net-wide anti-CDA campaign, the only party to participate in the Web blackout, and the only party to condemn the censorship.

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