The Religious Right andThe Communications Decency Act

By Howard Rheingold

The Religious Right is only a few weeks away from final victory in its effort to shut American citizens out of the Internet as a medium for uncensored communication.

The Religious Right is only a few weeks away from final victory in its effort to shut American citizens out of the Internet as a medium for uncensored communication. The censorship drive began in February, 1995, with the introduction of "The Computer Decency Act of 1995" (S.314), by Senator Jim Exon (D-NE). Senator Leahy (D-VT) countered with "The Family Empowerment Act," which mandates investigation of technical means for parents to filter, according to their own family's values, what comes into homes and schools. CDA passed the Senate on June 14; Leahy's amendment lost. On June 21, opposition to the Exon amendment was voiced even among prominent Republicans, including Representative Gingrich (R-GA).

Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA), and Rep. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the "Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act" (HR 1978), offering an approach that would empower parents, rather than the State, to make decisions about what is decent in every household. The summer of lobbying and horse-trading is over. In the Fall, the time has arrived when the Congress must choose between competing amendments and enact some form of the proposed legislation. Whether they ultimately choose the road to censorship advocated by the Exon amendment, or the parental empowerment approach advocated by the Cox-Wyden amendment, depends on how the battle for opinion goes over the next two months.

In the final weeks of 1995, the battle of the Communications Decency Act is approaching its decisive moment, and unless many people who favor of freedom of expression make many telephone calls right now, the censors are going to win. The Religious Right is openly pressing for final legislation that is even more restrictive than the Exon bill. A small number of people who pretend to speak for a majority seeks to use criminal and civil penalties to hold all Americans' online conversations, web pages, public archives to a rigidly defined standard for decency of content. The bill's zealous backers make it clear that their interpretation of decency in the new medium is far more strict than those standards upheld by the Supreme Court in regard to other forms of speech. Discourse on the Net will be restricted to that which is judged suitable for young children in strict households. Until and unless the Supreme Court decides that the legislation is unconstitutional, the decency cops, with the full power of the law, will have their day.

In October, 1995, Commerce committee chairman Larry Pressler received a letter signed by The Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schafly, the Reverends Donald Wildmon and Louis Sheldon of the American Family Association and Traditional Values Coalition, and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, that threw the weight of the top organizations of the Religious Right behind legislation that would establish a Federal decency police and shut down the emerging online communications industry by making online service providers criminally liable for the activities of their customers. The battle of the CDA is part of the sweeping telecommunications deregulation bill (S 652), now approaching the final stages of Congressional decision-making.

Call or fax Newt Gingrich's office now (1-202-225-4501 voice; 1-202-225-4656 fax), and cc Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) (1-202-224-6521 voice; 1-202-228-1245 fax).Tell them you favor the parental control tools proposed in the Cox-White-Wyden amendment to the chilling and authoritarian Exon amendment.

Stay informed, spread the word, make those calls. For more information, check the Voter's Telecommunication Watch web site and the Center for Democracy and Technology, or these gopher archives Via e-mail, send a message to (put "send alert" in the subject line for the latest alert, or "send cdafaq" for the CDA FAQ).