Comstockery in Cyberspace:
Intellectual Freedom on the Infobahn

by Janet Murray

Media hype and moral hysteria have portrayed the Internet as a dark alley lined with smut peddlers lurking in doorways to lure naive and innocent children to their doom. It's a dramatic visual image which causes consternation in most parents' hearts, but cyberspace seems most fearsome to those who are least familiar with it. When asked to comment on the use of Internet in schools, I often rely on analogies; I try to draw parallels to similar situations in a more familiar context. Perhaps thoughtful analogies can help illuminate intellectual freedom issues posed by Internet access.

For example, The Music Man portrays a community's fearful stampede to condemn the new game in town. Remember the song?

"Oh, we've got trouble - right here in River City - with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for POOL! Gotta figger out a way t'keep the young ones moral after school."
Professor Harold Hill cynically played on parental fears to create gainful employment for himself! It was an elegant con; the frightening aspect is how easily he succeeded in sweeping almost an entire town along with him. [Oh, well, it was only a movie - and a musical at that!]

Historical Context

Anthony Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to stop the distribution of "obscene" and "indecent" materials through the mail. In 1873, after less than an hour of debate, Congress passed the "Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use". No wonder it became known as the "Comstock Law"! Sounding the alarm, "Books are feeders for brothels", Comstock was appointed a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, and armed with a pistol! His targets included information about sexuality, reproduction and birth control as well as authors like Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac (the same three tunefully listed in The Music Man, remember?)

The "Comstock Law" was later applied to Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Steinbeck, among others. Comstock was diligent in his self-appointed task: he destroyed 120 tons of literature. George Bernard Shaw coined the term "Comstockery" when Mrs. Warren's Profession came under attack, but he also cheerfully noted that the attention significantly improved ticket sales.

In the midst of this nineteenth century hysteria, a librarian wrote Mark Twain to apologize for submitting to pressure to remove Huckleberry Finn from the children's collection in the Brooklyn Public Library. Twain replied,

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old.
Art and literature are not the only targets of overzealous censorship; political ideas can be threatening as well. A cartoon depicts a teacher looming over a seated student, proclaiming "This textbook is soft on communism!" Asked to define communism, she states, "It's a totalitarian form of government that controls what people can read and won't let them think for themselves!" When the student asks what she plans to do about the book, she gives the historically appropriate answer: "BAN IT!"

Senator Joseph McCarthy's flamboyant and highly publicized charges of communist subversion in the federal government dominated the national news for four years in the early 1950's. Variously described as a hero and a demagogue, McCarthy relied on scare tactics and unfounded allegations to dramatize his concerns about the threat of communism to the American way of life. As early as 1950, a New York Times cartoon predicted that he would paint himself into a corner (with red paint, of course). Ironically, another "new technology" brought about his downfall; his polemics could not withstand the daily scrutiny of televised hearings. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible dramatically compares McCarthy's tactics with the Salem witch trials, another situation where fear and ignorance led a community to take drastic action to rid itself of supposed evil.

How did Congress finally deal with Senator McCarthy? They banned HIM! And what does recent history tell us about the horrible specter of communism?

Legal Context

Consider other examples of social legislation designed to protect us from ourselves: Prohibition was a spectacular failure, and even the nationally mandated 55 mph speed limit was recently rescinded. Yet politicians persist in attempting to legislate morality.

The Communications Decency Act is merely the most recent example of another misguided Congress sucked into the vortex of bad lawmaking by the rhetoric of fear and ignorance. On February 1st, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act almost immediately after it was reported out of committee. As soon as President Clinton signed the bill into law, thousands of World Wide Web pages were turned black for 48 hours to protest its sweeping censorship provisions.

Senator James Exon, whose amendment sparked the eventual adoption of language prohibiting the distribution of "indecent" material over the Internet, argues that the law is intended to protect children from hard-core pornography. The problem with laws like these, and Comstock's, is that they are invariably applied to a much broader scope of material than their authors intended. There is no legal definition of "indecent" in the U.S., much less the international community in which the Internet operates. The statute could be applied to artistic works like The Sistine Chapel, reference material provided by the National Library of Medicine, and Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade, as well as the usual literary targets, including Huckleberry Finn.

A coalition of civil libertarians, privacy activists and Internet supporters immediately filed suit to restrain the government from enforcing the "indecency" provisions of the Communications Decency Act based on three affronts to the First Amendment: unconstitutional expansion of federal authority, vagueness and overbreadth, and failure to use the "least restrictive means" to regulate speech. Opponents of the CDA contend that parents - rather than governments - should be responsible for the supervision of their children's reading and viewing. Mike Godwin, counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that "there are already software tools to help parents shield their children from inappropriate material and these tools are vastly more flexible and effective than this ill-considered legislation." A federal judge in Philadelphia issued a temporary restraining order on February 15th, and on February 22nd, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed not to initiate investigation or prosecute under the "indecency" or "patently offensive" censorship provisions of the Telecommunications Act while the case continues in the courts.

Also on February 22nd, thousands of Internet users contributed essays on freedom of speech and freedom of choice in a demonstration of 24 Hours of Democracy. And thousands continue to support Free Speech Online by decorating their web pages with blue ribbons.

Cartoonist Scott Adams recently depicted the futility of this exercise in prescriptive morality this way: when Dilbert announced his intention to create a "new technology to prevent kids from seeing smut on the Internet" (1/23/96), Dogbert replied, "So, you're pitting your intelligence against the collective sex drive of all the teenagers who own computers?" Dilbert asked, defensively (or obtusely), "What is your point?" Dogbert countered with another (rhetorical) question: "Did you know that if you put a little hat on a snowball it can last a long time in hell?"

The unanticipated consequences of relying on electronic filtering are epitomized by a story on the front page of last Saturday's Oregonian: a child whose parents had installed SurfWatch complained that she was unable to access the kids' page at the White House. Officials who investigated found the indecent word "couples" used to describe the Clintons and the Gores! Of course the web weavers at Sexton Mountain School in Beaverton aren't too happy with SurfWatch either.

Social Context

Why is the Internet considered more threatening than Playboy, MTV or Showgirls? Look at what we see on television, in the grocery check-out line, and in news magazines in school and public libraries!

Television assaulted our eyes and ears with nightly coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial; isn't spousal abuse indecent? A tabloid headlining Lisa Marie's accusations about "Jacko's Boys" occupied the "news" rack next to the annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated at my family-oriented grocery store last week. The same issue of Time Magazine which featured "The Net's Strange Day" describes the phenomenal success of Reviving Ophelia, a best seller about the hazards of female adolescence, and the phenomenal multimillion dollar war between actress/"trash" novelist Joan Collins and her publishers.

Civil libertarians argue that the Communications Decency Act would criminalize Internet material that is legal in other formats. Or is the Internet merely the latest rallying point for those who wish to regulate all forms of expression? In Utah last week, the Salt Lake City School Board banned all student clubs to avoid chartering one intended to provide support for gay and lesbian teens. Then the state legislature passed a hastily drafted law prohibiting teachers from condoning illegal conduct in schools. Lake Oswego parents are protesting the inclusion of Playboy in the local public library's collection.

Librarians approach this issue in the context of their lengthy experience confronting censorship. About the time Senator Joe McCarthy was gearing up his campaign to save the American government from the threat of communism, the American Library Association adopted its first version of the Library Bill of Rights (1948). Two statements are directly relevant to the current debate:

ALA periodically issues interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights as new issues arise. A final interpretation pertaining to Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks strongly affirms that previously articulated intellectual freedom principles should not be abandoned simply because there is a new medium of delivery. ALA policy also affirms the Freedom to Read in language which is extremely pertinent today:
Most [attempts at suppression] rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary citizen, by exercising critical judgment, will accept the good and reject the bad. . . .
There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.
Senators Exon and Gorton, and their supporters, very definitely intend to coerce the taste of others, constrain what adults may read, and inhibit artistic expression.

Issues in Context for Schools

While many of you may agree that children should be protected from pornographic images, the critical question is how we should accomplish that goal. Historically, schools have developed policies and procedures based on the doctrine of in loco parentis. While children are in their care, they act in stead of the parents to insure their children's safety. Constitutional freedoms may be justifiably abridged in their application in schools. Random drug testing, locker searches, and the limits of student journalism have all been tested in the courts.

We consult with parents before we take their children off school grounds; we ask them to sign a field trip permission form. So, one approach to using the Internet in schools is to treat it as a "virtual field trip" - to cyberspace! We can inform parents of the potential dangers, and indemnify ourselves by asking them to sign a permission form.

Schools typically have codes of conduct which govern student behavior at school and on field trips. In my school district, these rules are referred to as "Student Rights and Responsibilities". Most schools treat Internet access as a revocable privilege, and have developed acceptable use policies with which students must agree to comply. Discussing the terms of the acceptable use policies with students allows us to introduce positive concepts like ethics, responsibility and copyright.

Common Elements of Acceptable Use Policies

Acceptable use policies commonly include the following elements:

Users have the right to:

Users agree to be:

Although school boards and network service providers are justifiably concerned about liability issues in the current political atmosphere, most educators are more interested in the teaching opportunity afforded by the introduction of Internet into the schools. If you think of the Internet in its information highway metaphor, then I think we want to be the filling station attendants and driving instructors. But we emphatically do NOT want to be the highway patrol, snow plow operators or litter collectors.

When confronting issues pertaining to using the Internet in schools, we can use the metaphor of a "virtual field trip" to guide our thinking about student safety and parental permission. We can devise acceptable use policies which explicitly detail students' rights and responsibilities, and use them as a teaching tool to guide discussions of personal ethics in an electronic environment.

Oh, we got trouble, my friends,
Right here in the river cities -
With a capital T
and that rhymes with C
and that stands for

Recommended Reading

Barlow, John Perry. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451.
Child Safety on the Information Highway
Kadie, Carl. Sex, Censorship, and the Internet
Orwell, George. 1984.

Sites Cited

24 Hours of Democracy
American Library Association Policies
Blue Ribbon Campaign
Electronic Frontier Foundation