Human rights activists, including myself, agree that the government has no authority to decide what is censored on the internet because this is a constitutionally protected right of an individual. The government cannot decide what another person should be able to see and do on the internet, as this is a personal decision. The internet serves as a vehicle for expression and therefore, limitations other than for criminal activity should not exist. As stated by the Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Steven Shapiro, “the government has no right to censor protected speech on the Internet, and it cannot reduce adults to hearing and seeing only speech that the government considers suitable for children”.
With growing popularity of online social networking websites and ever-increasing use of blogging much debate has occurred as to what limits should be placed on freedom of speech. Approximately 150 million individuals are members of Facebook, making it one of the trendiest social networking websites on the internet. Consequently, some have developed concern about protecting children that may view inappropriate material on websites such as Facebook and MySpace. With over 200 million members on Facebook and MySpace, the possibility of dangerous activity rises, placing children in an increasingly vulnerable state. For example, MySpace recently removed over 90,000 sex offenders from its website after a task force revealed much higher numbers of sex offenders than anticipated. In 1998, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act as a method of limiting the potentially harmful content available on the internet.
Since ratification of the act, internet users have been fighting to have the act repealed because of ridiculously broad provisions that violate our first amendment rights. For example, rather than constraining obscenity on the internet, the act stated that any potentially harmful material could be restricted. Furthermore, the determination of what constitutes harmful material is based on “contemporary community standards”. This provision gave the government unjust power in determining the limits of freedom of speech and severely infringes on personal autonomy. While the foremost intent of the act was to inhibit material showing sexually explicit acts, it went beyond this and undoubtedly placed unjust limitations on an individual’s right to free speech.
After several court proceedings and civil suits, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that COPA was unconstitutional, removing the possibility of unwarranted restrictions on internet users. The act was first challenged by the ACLU on behalf of a group of writers, artists, and health educators who depend on the internet for communicating constitutionally protected speech. After receiving a ruling declaring the law unconstitutional in 1998, the government decided to appeal and attempted to appeal several more times up until 2009, when the Supreme Court ended any further court action.
In making this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has demonstrated the importance of protecting the first amendment and preserving freedom of speech. However, in situations pertaining to the protection of children, some may believe that free speech should have limitations. This debate will likely be never-ending as the trade off between having free speech and protecting the vulnerable remains dominant within society. Does the government have the authority to censor freedom of speech on the internet or is freedom of speech a right without limitation?