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Guest Column

Youth control, not youth protection: The Real Threat of the CDA
By Patricia Nell Warren

As the Communications Decency lawsuit moves through hearings in Philadelphia, the Justice Department and many in the media are missing the real issue here. Even President Clinton is missing it -- as he revealed in his recent letter to Senator Exon, in which he expressed public support of CDA-type censorship.

The real issue is not "protecting kids from porn." Parents and schools can already "protect kids from porn" if they use available software. The real issue is whether or not young people under 18 will be allowed free speech on the Net. It is about whether minors will have access to all the positive, lifesaving and vital information on the Internet that might be viewed as "controversial" by some.

When even our Democratic President panders for right-wing votes by supporting CDA censorship, the youth of America have some scary sledding ahead.

So far, the media and the DOJ have ignored several affidavits filed by concerned young people. These kids say they have a problem with the government's plan to censor the Internet. They see clearly that the real issue is not "protecting kids from porn." Kit O'Connell, 17, a co-creator of "furryMUCKS," tells how a censorship panic locked him out of the very online community that he helped create. Rheana Parrenas, 16, Christine Soto, 18, and Hunter Allen, 17, tell how they will be denied free expression, as well as info on AIDS, safer sex, suicide prevention, prison life, youth activism -- all vital to straight and gay youth alike.

Though we adult plaintiffs have done lots of interviews, the four young people have been ignored. They were neither deposed by the DOJ, or called as witnesses in the hearings. They're "just kids," right?

I agree with the kids. The real purpose of the CDA is not to keep 8-year-olds out of Bianca's Smut Shack. It is to inject direct government scrutiny and law enforcement into the nation's school districts, now going online. It is to keep minors from using school computers to go out of their communities, even out of their countries, to access online libraries, archives, etc. where they might perchance find books, song lyrics, reference works, that local censors manage to remove from local school and public-library shelves. It is about destroying the anonymity that young people have always needed in their hungry search for real-life information. News-watchers who follow the school-district uproars about sex ed, gay clubs and other issues, will shortly see the growing district uproars over Internet use.

As more school papers and college radio stations fall under heavy censorship, as parents with narrow views demand to control school policy, the young people themselves are stepped over. Nobody asks what they think, or how they feel, about this burden that is being laid on them. "We know what's best for you, dears."

Yet if the CDA is found constitutional, minors will face the same heavy penalties as adults for violations of the Act. Two years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for a 17-year-old boy who hacks into the Playboy site? For a girl who uses a school computer to download a gif on safer condom use?

Gee, isn't this a bit excessive? Dan White did only five years for murdering two human beings, one the mayor of San Francisco. How much stiffer will penalties get, in this growing fanaticism to "control kids" and "get tough on crime"?

I have not forgotten being a kid in the 1950s, reading my way through books forbidden by my local high school and the Catholic Church. Hard-core pornography was around, but I wasn't interested in it. Like most kids of my time, I WAS interested in books that were controversial, boldly questioning. The very existence of the Index of Forbidden Books, and threats of hellfire for reading it, caused this Montana teenager to lose all respect for the censors. I didn't have to be old enough to vote, to see that censorship is not about protection of youth -- it is about control of youth. If the CDA had been around in those days, I might have gone to jail for handing a copy of The Letters of Abelard & Heloise to a dormitory friend! Abelard got in trouble with the church, not only because he was a priest writing love letters to a nun, but because he had controversial views. Until 1930 the U.S. government outlawed all imports of The Letters in book form.

Today, CDA enforcement will probably not dent the hard-core porno business, which always thrives in times of repression. But the CDA will definitely dent the student's freedom to learn. It will limit the student's access to the equivalent of Abelard's Letters -- to the questioning, controversial stuff that is the very life of a dynamic culture. It will definitely dent the minor student's right to speak out on sensitive issues.

Most dangerous of all, enforcement of the CDA will cause the smart kids to lose respect for the government. And they will lose respect for all adults who support this kind of punitive and suffocating law.


Patricia Nell Warren wrote "The Front Runner," "Harlan's Race" and other best-selling novels about gay life. She lives in Los Angeles, where she serves on the Gay & Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Visit her Web page here.
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