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School Liability Under Decency Act Warned

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A new federal law designed to protect children from on-line pornographic materials may be so broadly written as to make schools liable for the actions of computer-savvy students, some educators fear.

The Communications Decency Act, a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that President Clinton signed into law this month, makes it a federal offense to make pornography available to children over the global Internet computer network or any of the commercial on-line services. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)

Some school officials interviewed last week were skeptical that the provisions could apply to them. But Connie Stout, the director of the Texas Education Network, which provides educators with Internet access for a $5 annual fee, pointed out that the full provisions of the new law are only now being circulated among Internet users.

"Everybody is right now just trying to get information," she said. "But it is a very volatile topic."

The main fear, some educators said, is that a student with access to the Internet could post material deemed indecent on a school's "home page" on the Internet's World Wide Web, thereby opening the school or the district to prosecution under the act.

The hotly debated language was included in the bill in large part as the result of a few publicized cases in which minors either obtained illicit materials or were enticed into sexual relationships by adults who "stalked" them on-line.

The new law contains penalties of up to two years in jail or fines of up to $250,000 for an individual, or $250,000 for a business or corporation, for violating the act.

Room for Interpretation

Many groups, largely on the political right, support the decency provisions. Advocates argue that the law will crack down on the hard-core pornography that can be found, even inadvertently, in the previously self-governed world of cyberspace.

Ralph Reed, the head of the Christian Coalition, a leading conservative advocacy group based in Chesapeake, Va., called the passage of the measure a "victory for children."

And Cathleen Cleaver, the director of legal studies for the Washington-based Family Research Council, another prominent conservative group, argued in a newspaper column that the decency provisions are no more stringent than existing regulations for printed pornography.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and 19 other groups immediately challenged the new law in federal district court in Philadelphia, hoping to block implementation of the indecency provisions. Late last week, the judge blocked the government from enforcing some--but not all--of the language in the provisions.

Earlier this month, many home pages on the Internet's World Wide Web appeared with black backgrounds to protest the passage of the decency measure. The Software Publishers Association's Web site was one of them.

David Byer, the education-policy manager for the Washington-based SPA, said that some observers doubt whether the new law will be as strict as many first feared. But he was quick to add that the association's official position is that the law could be used to prosecute students, or even parents, for "language [in electronic communications] that you'd hear on any school bus."

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said it will soon begin to enforce the law vigorously. But, he added, it would be unlikely that the provisions would be applied to materials schools or libraries produce.

Still, some educators fear that the law's vague language could leave schools in legal hot water. They worry that the distribution of art depicting nudity over the Internet, for example, could make a school technically liable under the law's provisions--if those works were deemed to violate community standards of decency.

The number of schools with a presence on the Internet is growing rapidly. No central registry keeps a count on schools with Internet access, but sources estimate that thousands of individual schools have created home pages on the World Wide Web. In fact, such Web sites have been called the fastest-growing segment of the Internet because they allow users to display color graphics and text.

In K-12 education, home pages range from extensive, statistics-laden repositories maintained by state education departments to informal, even chatty pages maintained by elementary, middle, and high schools across the country.

Frequently, school home pages not only serve as an outlet for official news but also as "links" to the individual home pages that students, or even parents, create.

Tampering through these links, observers said, is the most likely way of introducing the kind of materials that could theoretically open a school to liability under the decency provisions.

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