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Educators Express Relief Over Ruling Rejecting Decency Act

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Many educators were relieved last week by a federal court's decision that a new law restricting "indecency" on the Internet violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The ruling, issued June 12 by a special three-judge panel in Philadelphia, barred enforcement of the federal Communications Decency Act. The decision makes it far less likely that state education departments and local school districts could be penalized for posting educational materials, including nude works of art, on the worldwide computer network.

It also removes the more serious possibility that school officials could be held liable should a computer-savvy student post materials deemed indecent onto a "home page" the district maintains on the World Wide Web, the graphical portion of the Internet. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1996.)

Judge Stewart Dalzell of the panel concluded that regulating free speech is too high a price to pay to control indecent material on the Internet. "As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion," he wrote.

Connie Stout, who heads the Texas Education Network, a statewide telecommunications system for schools, said the ruling protects educators who provide students with access to the Internet.

Such protection will be especially important, Ms. Stout added, as Internet use increases and more children become technologically adept.

"There's always going to be that one kid who knows more than anyone else and who presents the greatest risk," she said.

Conservative Dissent

A broad coalition, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, and Internet users opposed to the law, filed the challenge. The law, signed by President Clinton in February, made it a crime to make "indecent" or "patently offensive" material available to children over the computer network. Each offense would be punishable by a $250,000 fine or two years in jail.

The plaintiffs hailed the decision as a victory for free speech.

But conservative groups, including the Washington-based Family Research Council, quickly denounced the ruling as harmful to children.

"It is an arrogant decision which flies in the face of the Supreme Court and our society," said Cathy Cleaver, the FRC's director of legal studies.

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