WASHINGTON (June 26, 1997) -- The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold freedom of speech even if it means indecent materials may reach minors underscores the need for "the development of legislation that effectively and constitutionally protects children from unsuitable and dangerous material," said Mark Chopko, General Counsel for the U.S. Bishops, June 26.
Mr. Chopko's statement follows.
"The Internet has opened a new world of educational opportunity. At the same time it has raised concerns among parents and educators that technologically proficient children can obtain access to material that is not simply inappropriate. It can be harmful. For this reason, last year, the Congress passed the Communications Decency Act making such access more difficult and outlawing certain kinds of information. Today in Reno v. ACLU, the United States Supreme Court acknowledged the compelling interest in protecting children, but held nonetheless that the Act violated the First Amendment. Today's decision reflected both the Court's traditional reluctance to deny adults access to material on the grounds that it is unsuitable for children, and the changing technology of information transfer. Given the anonymity of cyberspace, the Court concluded that there was no way to place a criminal liability on an information source for failing to block effectively all underage users. The Court also noted that the Act even subjected parents seeking to educate their children on their own home computers to possible criminal sanction.
"The United States Catholic Conference shares the anxiety and frustration of parents who want their children to use the vast learning resources available on the Internet but fear exposure to sexually explicit, violent or other material harmful to children. Parents need more, not fewer tools to assist them in guiding their children through the range of material available to them in the new digital information world. As we know from the Court's decision today and analogous ones, these tools must be able to withstand challenges arising from the First Amendment's free speech guarantee. Well-intentioned proposals that cannot pass this stringent test and may even inadvertently endanger legitimate educational efforts do not contribute to remedy a serious problem. The Conference, however, offers its strong support for the development of legislation that effectively and constitutionally protects children from unsuitable and dangerous material.
"Today's decision by the Supreme Court recognizes these various interests, and reminds us of the care that must be taken to prevent damage to fundamental right of free speech when attempting to protect children. The U.S. Catholic Conference will continue to work in every available arena to develop methods of supporting parents' right to direct the upbringing of their children in a manner respectful of the First Amendment."