Jacking in from the "Damn the Torpedoes" Port:
Washington, DC -- A posse of top House Republicans are riding into Cyberspace wearing White Hats and riding a horse called the First Amendment.
Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, is readying a bill that would prohibit the government from placing any regulations on content in Cyberspace. According to a draft of the bill obtained by Dispatch, even the guerilla war on the First Amendment now being waged in Statehouses throughout the nation would be thwarted. Cox's bill, which he plans to co-sponsor with Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would preempt state laws that now restrict content.
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has gone into full-scale "Marshall Dillon" mode, assailing attempts by the Senate to curb pornography on the Internet by means of the Exon/Coats amendment, which passed as part of the Senate's telecommunications reform package. Gingrich, speaking Tuesday night (June 20) on his weekly "Progress Report" cable program, said the Exon/Coats amendment was "very badly thought-out."
Civil libertarian groups have already blasted the Exon/Coats amendment, calling it unconstitutional along several points. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have issued detailed section summaries of the bill. Both rip into the amendment along legal lines, carving out its huge constitutional flaws with the force of a chain saw.
Gringrich, not short on candor himself, minced no words denouncing the the Exon/Coats provision, calling it "a violation of free speech." He said the move by Exon would have "no real impact" and was merely a political ploy, which would give all 84 Senators that supported the amendment "a good press release back home."
Rep. Cox said government should "stay out" of trying to regulate the electronic arena. Instead, he favors industry solutions and guidelines. He said the Exon/Coats amendment, combined with the recent court case that hammered Prodigy in a libel case, sends the message that online services shouldn't even try to deal with objectionable material. "What service is going to want to risk trying to police [content] on their system?" Cox said, "if all they get in return is a lawsuit?"
Cox is even opposed to the government mandating some kind of blocking or filtering technology. He wants a hands-off approach for fear that government intrusion would only "act as a drag on progress."
Gingrich accused the Senate of punting on a "serious issue which is how do you maintain right of free speech for adults while also protecting children in a medium which is available to both." His comments are ironic: During the Senate debate on the telecom reform bill, Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) said that a proposed substitute amendment to his bill, offered by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), was "nothing more than a punt." Leahy's amendment would have called on the Justice Department to first study the problem of objectionable material on the Internet before rushing in with any legislation.
The House is due to began debate on its own version of telecommunications reform within the next few weeks. The House bill has a version of the Leahy amendment already in place. There is currently no one offering an Exon/Coats clone amendment. But someone is almost certain to bring it up, House congressional staffers say.
What happens if the Cox-Gingrich posse runs into the Exon/Coats crowd? "As Chairman of the Republication Policy Committee, I would vigorously fight that," Cox said, setting the stage for the Cyberspace equivalent of the shoot-out at the OK Corral.