Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
When I was a child I thought the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment, were cool.
When I went to law school I learned what great works of genius they are.
To me, the First Amendment summarizes the central values of a pluralistic democratic society, the values I used to think all Americans believed in and even took for granted.
Further, it symbolizes America's claim to assert true moral leadership in the world. Where nations are concerned a claim to true "moral leadership" includes a population free to read, write, speak, think, and worship (or not) as it pleases.
It is an act of supreme hubris (not to mention monumental and laughable ignorance) for the United States even to contemplate attempting to regulate content on the Internet. The Internet is the single most powerful force for human understanding and communication on the planet today. It brings together people of all ages and circumstances from all over the world, with other people and with information and ideas that they want, ranging from a cross-section of a dissected human cadaver to the Martha's Vineyard - Woods Hole ferry schedule. Anyone with access to the Internet can reach literally millions of other people, with few or no logistical or economic barriers in his or her way.
At Christmastime 1995 I put up a web page, linked from my home page, called "Secrets of really good chocolate chip cookies." The folks at Yahoo put it in their directory. In the first seven months it recorded almost 10,000 "hits," or visits. Within a few hours of its Yahoo listing I began to receive electronic mail from people all over the world who are interested in chocolate chip cookies (and who isn't?). The power and reach of this fledgling medium are staggering.
Information doesn't just want to be free; it WILL BE free. The Internet ultimately cannot and will not countenance censorship of any kind. "The Internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it." Also, the Internet is big, and the World Wide Web at last report was doubling in volume every 53 days. Thus, while some Americans may find that their government is trying to make them into felons, not a single child anywhere will be "protected," because somewhere else in the world someone will publish the same content, and a fifth grader in Iowa City will find it equally easily. Let parents have the technical tools to protect their children as (and if) they choose... if not for philosophical reasons, then for practical ones: nothing else will work.
A thousand years from now, at the next millennium, when we and this civilization are forgotten except for "Ancient Earth History" courses taught all over the galaxy, the First Amendment will be our monument. It will speak powerfully of the kind of civilization we tried to have. Let it not be said about us that we failed.
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