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Research Papers on Freedom of Speech on the Internet

Research papers regarding free speech on the Internet concerns the place and purposes of free speech in a democracy. In the United States, this right of free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution and is often examined in sociology term papers. A Free speech on the Internet term paper is complicated, however, because the Internet is a new type of medium for information and communication.

While a fundamental right of democracy, free speech is not an absolute right. Limitations on the freedom of speech have been created by numerous court rulings on cases involving the following:Freedom of Speech on the Internet

  • Free speech
  • Constitutional rights
  • Individual liberty with respect to books, films, news articles, and other traditional types of media.

As the Internet has grown and come to affect not only business, but also politics, education, news-gathering, communication between individuals, and other essential areas of society, free-speech issues have correspondingly become central issues concerning the nature, use, and purposes of the Internet. Court cases and government legislation have become more frequent as the Internet has grown and its place and consequences on modern life are becoming more evident.

On June 26, 1997, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act in the case of Reno v. ACLU.  While various parties were both pleased and outraged, the case, its decision, and similar cases have helped to define what freedom of speech means with regard to the internet and online mediums, and how laws in cyberspace can translate into our physical lives.  The Supreme Court justices struck down the CDA because they ruled that it violated the first and fifth amendments of the Constitution, and this ruling was in line with earlier rulings in lower courts of appeals. 

The Communications Decency Act was initiated in February of 1996 and was part of the Telecommunications Act of the same year.  The Act was intended to protect under age people from indecent material on the internet, and made the transmission of such materials a criminal act.  In June of 1996, the ACLU along with eighteen other organizations challenged the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act.  The American Library Association has filed a similar lawsuit and the two were consolidated.  A three-judge court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ruled that the CDA was unconstitutional.  The Department of Justice appealed the decision by that court, and the case was heard by the Supreme Court and affirmed in a 7-2 decision on June 26, 1996. 

The U.S. Government, who had pursued this Act as a valuable part of U.S. legislation, was vehemently opposed to the decision.  President Bill Clinton issued a statement explaining his position and making sure that his administration was still firmly behind the CDA. 

The Internet is an incredibly powerful medium for freedom of speech and freedom of expression that should be protected...but this material on the Internet that is clearly inappropriate for children.  As a parent, I understand the concerns that parents have about their children accessing inappropriate material.

Clinton’s sentiments seem to have been shared by many of his colleagues, including Senator James Exon, who was the chief sponsor of the CDA.  As with any measure that involves the restriction of available material, the appeal was made that the CDA was a protective barrier for children. 

Yet, the major detraction from this opinion claimed that the CDA was a form of censorship over the internet.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center, EPIC, who was a co-plaintiff in the case with the ACLU, explained why the decision was beneficial.  “The CDA not only infringed on Americans’ free speech rights, but also posed a grave threat to personal privacy.  By requiring ‘speakers’ on the Internet to verify the age and identity of all potential recipients of ‘indecent’ material, the law would have destroyed the anonymity that is a hallmark of online communications...a good deal of sensitive information – dealing with AIDS prevention, teenage pregnancy, and other critical social issues – would not be sought out if recipients were required to identify themselves.”

Clearly, it is important to protect children from viewing indecent material, but the CDA is not the proper mechanism to complete that goal.  Jennifer Chang said that “courts have been overly broad in their interpretation of the Communications Decency Act.” This can only lead to censorship, from which nobody, including the minors that the CDA was supposed to protect, can benefit. 

The government was not finished trying to pass what they saw as a worthwhile statute into law.  In October of 1998, Congress passed and Clinton signed the Child Online Protection Act, which is sometimes referred to as the Communications Decency Act II.  The law, like the CDA, established criminal penalties for the commercial distribution of indecent material to minors.  Four months later, in February of 1999, a Philadelphia district court issued an injunction that prevented the enforcement of the COPA.  The court said that there was no way to prevent minors from reaching information that would not also prevent adults from that same information.

Defining Certain Terms

Decency
Pronunciation: 'dE-s&n-sE
Function: noun  
Definition: 1. Archaic. 2. The quality or state of being decent. My discussion: The Communications Decency Act would make one think that it would define what is and what isn’t decent.  Yet, there is no true definition of Decency found in this Act, and it seems as though the writers of this appeal were relying on classical definitions of decency, which is to say that their definitions were moot.  There are certain items that may be implicit in the suggestion of decency, such as nudity, profanity and violence, but what certainly small levels of each are allowed in the most public of contexts, and it would be difficult to define when violence turns indecent.  Is a dead body on a newscast more indecent than a dead body in a fictional movie, for instance?  Does profanity mean the classical curse words or does this word apply to more benign words like dang or racial epitaphs and other derogatory terms?  Is there a difference between a picture of a naked male model and the statute of naked King David?  Questions like these are ones that have always stymied the proposition of censorship based upon decency. 

Obscene
Pronunciation: äb-'sEn
Function: adjective
Definition: 1. disgusting to the senses 2. abhorrent to morality or virtue; specifically: designed to incite to lust or depravity b: containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage c: repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles d: so excessive as to be offensive.
Discussion: Obscene may be somewhat less vague than the term decent, but is no more helpful in designing a program or a standard to protect minors from harmful materials.  There are a lot of items that are disgusting to the senses that might not necessarily be deemed obscene.  Rotten produce, for example, is not an image or a smell that conjures up warmth and decency; such an example is quite disgusting to the senses.  Yet, it is doubtful that anyone would suggest barring any mention of rotten produce from movies, websites or music.  As for the definition of obscene meaning a departure from virtue or morality, this definition is equally meaningless.  Since the days of Socrates and Aristotle, the nature of virtue and of morality have been debated by philosophers and lay people alike; there has not been much of a consensus as to one definition of those two terms.  If some of the smartest people ever to walk this planet could not define virtue and morality in an acceptable manner, how presumptuous must Americans be to think that they can not only define, but can make decisions that affect other people based upon the definitions of those words.  (Merriam Webster, 2006)

The CDA, the COPA and the definitions of the words used in the briefings prepared by proponents of these laws, are all plagued by similar problems.  Restricting access to children cannot be achieved without also restricting access to adults, thus preventing the Internet from being a zone truly protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.  For the owners and runners of websites, these restrictions would be prohibitive, and for web users, the access to information would be restricted.  These restrictions would be based upon terms that have very vague definitions that would hardly be agreed upon if the definitions were presented to a wide proportion of the country’s population.  Decency, obscenity and vulgarity are words that have very different meanings that are context dependant.  It is better for parents to define these terms according to their own values, and to pass these values onto their children.  It is better that parents use programs to monitor and restrict their children’s access to certain materials rather than having laws passed that will restrict access to everyone. 

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