Seattle Community Network  >  Free Speech  >  CDA  >  Doug Schuler's Speech (1995)

Stop Internet Censorship Rally

Remarks by Doug Schuler, CPSR, SCN
December 14, 1995

I'm struck with the clarity and simplicity of the first amendment to the constitution of the United States: "Congress shall make no law.. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble." Now we are peacably assembled today to protest the fact that some members of congress are planning and working to accomplish the very act that they are prohibited from doing. In fact it appears that some members of congress feel that the constitution is just a first draft. It's been suggested that some of them prefer Constitution LITE.

Why did the forefathers insist on this freedom? Because free people depend on free communication: Democracy without free speech is a contradiction in terms.

How do Americans converse with one another now - about gardening, social change, jobs, health-care, homework? We can send letters. This is one-to-one communication. We can talk to each other on the phone. This - again - is one-to-one communication. What other forms of communication exist? Television, radio, newspapers. These forms are all broadcast - communication of the few to the many.

Somebody has said that freedom of the press is free for those who can afford a printing press. For that reason the voices of many go unheard. These are often the voices of minorities, the poor, the elderly, the disabled -- and alternative and unpopular voices as well.

The astonishing thing about network communication is that it enables - for the first time in history - the potential for many to many communication. Although this technology is in its infancy and many people in low income communities have historically been denied access, this is a revolutionary development. It offers the opportunity for everybody in a society to engage in public discourse. For that reason it is a medium uniquely qualified to serve a democratic society. This is one of the main reasons we have worked for the last two years to establish the Seattle Community Network.

Now the Seattle Community Network has over 6,500 users. It is free to use. And people use it for business, for political debate, and conversation. The service is available from all Seattle Public and King County library branches - so you don't have to have a computer at home. It is a public space in cyberspace that we hope will play a vital role in our region's dialogue and discussion now and in the years ahead.

Now the existence of SCN and other public (and commercial) networks are being threatened from the very institution that ought to defend and encourage them: the US congress. The "Communications Decency Act" has been launched - ostensibly to stop "cyberporn" which they believe - based on little or no evidence - is ravaging out of control. Their proposed "solution" - in addition to gutting the constitution - would force network administrators into the unnecessary, unwanted, and untenable position of playing network cop and censor.

It is no exaggeration to say that this bill poses a massive threat to SCN and other networks. As you probably could guess, SCN does not have a large budget or cash reserve. If ONE SCN user posted a message on an SCN forum or sent e-mail from their SCN account that was deemed to be "indecent" - whatever that means! - SCN could be found liable and fined $100,000! On top of that SCN's board of directors and staff could also receive prison sentences. It's fair to say that the framers of the Constitution would be horrified!

Realistically, one such fine would put SCN forever out of business. We'd go broke paying for one letter of one word of one of the seven dirty words! Of course we wouldn't even be able to find out for sure what the words are! No - Paying these fines is not a solution - even if we could afford it. Another possible approach comes to mind: Monitoring and censoring SCN usage. In theory, network administrators could inspect each and every posting that an SCN user makes - just to check whether it was indecent or decent. This is also a non-solution: Even if we could play the role of spy and censor we wouldn't. The whole point is to create an open forum for public discourse.

I'd like to close with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson. He said, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."

I call upon the elected representatives of this country to defend the principles upon which this country was built - not betray them. Please inform our discretion!