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Judges prepare to rule on cyberspace censorship issue Decency act opposed by on-line industry

For the past few weeks, three federal judges in Philadelphia have taken a tour of cyberspace.

They have visited World Wide Web sites where they could see London's museums, learn about their favorite sports teams or read up on health matters.

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They have also encountered sites with names like Triple AAA Adult Entertainment, Las Vegas Show Girls and Bianca's Smut Shack.

Having completed their tour Friday, the judges are preparing to issue a decision that could be a landmark case on how the First Amendment applies to on-line communication. At issue is whether the 3-month-old Communications Decency Act, which makes it a crime for a person knowingly to circulate "patently offensive" sexual material to on-line sites accessible by those under 18, is a permissible way to protect children from pornography or a muzzle on free speech.

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A suit challenging the statute was filed in February by a coalition of 47 free speech and computer groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and such companies as Microsoft and America Online. They assert that the law is already having chilling effects.

Earlier this month, newspapers reported that the Justice Department had requested an FBI review of a complaint from a conservative Christian group that a sexually explicit feature offered by Compu-Serve was not adequately fenced off from children.

The Justice Department request was made despite an agreement to refrain from investigating possible violations of the law until the court decides the matter. For its part, CompuServe has noted that it offers parents the ability to block objectionable sites to children.

In closing arguments Friday, a lawyer challenging the statute said that if the law stood as written, it could stymie a technology that promises to enhance communication.

"We have what is a new medium, an enormously exciting medium, a democratizing medium and an evolving medium," said the lawyer, Christopher Hansen. "The statute has the potential for stifling this new and exciting medium."

Government lawyers argued that shielding children from indecent communication was an appropriate role for the government and said that courts had upheld regulations on telephone sex lines.

"Congress put the burden on those who would put, in cyberspace, material inappropriate to children," said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer for the government. "We should keep the burden where it is."

In New York, meanwhile, judges are hearing a similar case brought by Joseph Shea, editor of the American Reporter, a daily newspaper available on the Internet and through electronic mail.

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Shea, whose newspaper normally refrains from vulgar language, was so incensed by the law that he published an editorial filled with profanity as a challenge to the statute the day it was enacted. His lawyers say the statute would subject electronic news and commentary to government regulation unthinkable for print publications. Closing arguments are scheduled for June 3.

Throughout the Philadelphia case, opponents of the law have charged that it is overly vague and broad. One witness, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, said he worried about the law's effects on the AIDS information he helps distribute through a web page and computer bulletin board.

"Someone might find material that we find important offensive," Kuromiya said in court. "I don't know what 'indecent' means. I don't know what 'patently offensive' means in terms of providing life-saving information to people with AIDS, including teen-agers."

Government lawyers have said children can too easily find or stumble across sexually explicit material on the Internet. Howard Schmidt, an Air Force computer crimes investigator and government witness, said that by employing "search engines" -- locators that find Internet addresses after the user types in keywords or phrases -- children can, intentionally or not, visit sexually graphic sites on the World Wide Web.

The judges in the Philadelphia case are Dolores K. Sloviter, chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Stewart Dalzell and Ronald L. Buckwalter of U.S. District Court.

Huddled behind computer terminals specially set up for the hearings, the three sat through courtroom web-surfing sessions conducted by Schmidt and plaintiff witnesses. Sites that might have been considered objectionable did not appear on courtroom screens. Judges saw photocopies of them bound in thick black government exhibit volumes.

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Pub Date: 5/12/96


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