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SPJ joins lawsuit against communications decency act

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The national Society of Professional Journalists has joined a lawsuit challenging the Communications Decency Act of 1996, part of the comprehensive telecommunications reform.

The act would impose a fine of up to $250,000 per violation and a prison term of up to two years for anyone convicted of disseminating indecent information on the Internet or on-line services where it could be accessed by minors.

SPJ has become a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Monday, Feb. 26, by the American Library Association, America Online, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Other media groups involved in the challenge are the American Society of Newspaper Editors; Newspaper Association of America; Association of Publishers, Editors and Writers; and the Association of American Publishers.

The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The lawsuit is likely to be consolidated with a pending challenge already filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.

"There are other ways to block pornography from children other than resorting to censorship," said SPJ President G. Kelly Hawes.

For journalists, the act will infringe on classic press freedoms based solely on the medium in which the content is printed.

A print story that is published through an on-line source, for example, would be subject to censorship simply because it is in an electronic format. A print story would not be so censored. Different versions of stories would have to be prepared for dissemination.

Publishers and journalists will now have to scrutinize any articles for "indecent" content.

SPJ believes that the act will not accomplish the goals of protecting the nation's children.

"The act is a false promise because it deludes parents into the false hope that government can protect their children from sexually explicit material," said SPJ's First Amendment Counsel Bruce Sanford.

The government does many things well and some things not so well. One of the things government does most poorly is to try to regulate the editorial content of any medium," said Sanford.

"Technology, including software programs that can block adult sexually explicit material, is a parent's true friend, but that has not stopped Congress from pandering to parental fears."

The computer age has also brought various ways for parents to protect their children from what is considered to be inappropriate material.

Plaintiffs believe the indecency ban reaches far beyond already sexually-explicit materials to legitimate information and education activities such as public health, artistic, literary, and political communications.

For example:

Every World Wide Web site which allows users to post comments;

Breast cancer education organizations -- especially self-exam instructions;

Museums that carry works of art with nudes and references to sexual activity;

Libraries with digitized collections accessible on the Internet;

Schools and universities that provide Usenet or World Wide Web access to students under age 18.

The U.S. Justice Department has agreed not to investigate or prosecute anyone for suspected violations of the law until the court issues its ruling sometime after government lawyers present their case on April 11 and 12.

On March 21 and 22, plaintiffs in the two lawsuits will present evidence before a three-judge panel.

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