Strossen, Meese debate question of Internet censorship at WCDU

Last Tuesday, the WCDU staged the fourth in its series of debates in Chapin Hall. Despite the bad weather, the debate started only a few minutes late, with the topic: Should the government regulate speech on the Internet?

The debate featured alumnus Brian Elieson ’97, Associate Professor of Political Science James Mahon Jr. and former Attorney General Edwin Meese for the proposition, supporting regulation, while Amanda Amert ’97, Associate Professor of Political Science Mark Reinhardt and American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen argued for the opposite side. The audience strongly favored the proposition, voting by a 245-65 margin that there should be no government regulation of the Internet.

Elieson began the debate by describing the proposition’s position as supporting the regulation of only speech deemed “secondary” and not political or other important types of speech that serve a point in society. He mentioned “lewd and obscene speech” as examples of what he determined to be such “secondary speech.” He further argued that certain characteristics of the Internet necessitated government regulation, citing the anonymity of those on the Internet and the lack of an intermediary force to screen out those who should not be viewing certain types of material. Elieson believed that such characteristics make for a situation where the government must regulate.

In the opening of her speech, Amert laid out the points that the proposition had to prove in order to win the debate. “You have to be so convinced that there is such a great harm [from children accessing age-sensitive material] that you believe we should throw out the way we conduct free speech in this country.” Amert went on to rebuke Elieson’s analysis, wondering about what possible harm could result from children or others accessing material they may not be mature enough for.

“What would happen if a seven-year-old child wandered into a terrible pornographic site? What would be the harms of that?” asked Amert.

She ended by asking the audience if they trusted some unknown government worker to determine what was right and wrong for them to view on the Internet.

Mahon came up next and illustrated the difficulty he would have, as a professor, in limiting others’ freedom of speech. Yet, like Elieson, he believed that there are some forms of speech that serve no purpose in society other than to objectify others and thus was deserving of some form of government regulation.

“How is my knowledge of public affairs helped if I looked at sexy teens?” asked Mahon.

He further went on to point out that indeed no government regulation may, in fact, be harmful to democracy. In a constitutive norm, he argued, “We can’t have some of describing others as subhuman or as meat.” Mahon felt that allowing govenrment regulation of the Internet would reaffirm democratic principles such as equality by disallowing speech and expression that only serves, in his opinion, to dehumanize other individuals.

One of the most heated moments in the debate came when Strossen, on a point of information, asked Mahon about whether he would consider the Catholic church’s decrying homosexual activity as a sin hate speech. Mahon pointedly answered, “Do you really expect me to answer that question?” Apparently, judging from the audience reaction, the answer was yes. As a result, Mahon indeed answered the question by saying that such speech would not be considered “hate speech” because it was condemning the sin, not the sinner.

Reinhart referred back to one of Elieson’s points during the beginning of his speech, remarking that the features of the Internet that necessitated government regulation in Elieson’s opinion, actually bolstered the opposition’s arguments about he infeasiblity of government regulation. He subsequently argued that though the Internet may be new, the “old” Constitution and its first amendment still apply.

The Communications Decency Act was one of the topics he brought up when pointing out what government regulation might do to the Internet. He lambasted the proposed act, asking if it was really fair to jail someone for up to two years, as the CDA suggested, for maintaining a site with indecent material. He also touched on what conflict there would be in terms of constitutional issues when it came to regulation on the Internet, ending his speech by referring back to his 10-year old son present in the audience.

“I would much rather have my 10-year old son living in world that allowed him to view pornography rather than one that limited free expression.”

That set the stage for the two invited speakers, Meese and Strossen. Meese was the first to speak, trying to lay out the opposition’s burden in winning the debate. Calling their position “extreme,” Meese went on to argue that the opposition must prove that there is no situation where the government cannot and should not regulate the Internet. He remarked that the opposition had not and could not defend such a position.

Meese’s 15-minute oration dealt mostly with the “need for balance between unfettered exploitation of the Internet and reasonable protection.” The former attorney general strongly felt that his side was the one of “common sense” when it came to regulating that material that poses a “public danger.”

Saying that the Constitution does not protect all forms of speech, Meese gave the example of an adult using the Internet as a means to find a child to molest. Toward the end, especially as he and Strossen fought over how a child is defined, Meese harped on the distinctions made between children and adults. He denounced any Internet search engine that restricted adult access to the Internet but felt that children, who he defined as those under the age of 18, should be restricted to certain types of information. The Internet, he argued, obliterates the distinction society makes between what adults do and what children do.

Strossen, perhaps the most animated of all the speakers, came up to the podium and bluntly stated the heart of her position: “No law means no law!” She described the proposition side as a normally conservative one that was taking “a very unconservative position when it came to the First Amendment.”

After Meese brought up the Supreme Court’s rulings that some speech should be regulated, Strossen answered back, stating that only speech that constituted “a clear and present danger” deserves to be regulated. She brought up the idea of “viewpoint neutrality” as one in which the government cannot regulate certain types of speech just because they do not agree with its idea or content.

Strossen believed that only that speech which might result in “imminent, tangible harm” was deserving of government regulation.

She also questioned Meese’s statements about what types of material should be kept out of children’s hands, mentioning that 123,000 college freshmen would have been prohibited from accessing certain types of material on the Internet because they were under the age of 18.

Throughout her speech, Strossen referred to the undeniable right that organizations and people have to speak and express themselves freely, even if some people, herself included, think such speech is inappropriate.

She further tried to demonstrate the problems that would result from government intervention. The ACLU leader pointed out that the website of the conservative “American Family,” as well as her own website, had been blocked out by certain Internet search engines. In light of that, Strossen argued that is not the “business of government officials to determine what is appropriate. Big Brother does not belong in the American family.”

It was at this point in the debate that floor speeches were called. Seth Brown ’01 read aloud a poem about the debate and Anselm McClain ’02 challenged Strossen’s assertion that only child pornography deserved to be regulated.

After the floor speeches, Amert once again restated the opposition case philosophy. In the context of political speech in a democracy, she argued, it is not the place of the government to restrict information. Instead, she asserted that is a parent’s obligation to determine what their child should or should not be able to view.

Elieson tried to rally support for the proposition in his final speech. While not concentrating as much on protecting children, Elieson, using an affirmative action, argued for “a more level playing field.” In his opinion, meaningful speech gets overshadowed when certain individuals lose their dignity, and order to preserve the validity of other viewpoints and allow everyone’s opinion to be heard, the government must regulate certain types of speech. In closing, he again mentioned the Internet’s unique anonymity and lack of intermediary as justifications of the government’s role in regulating the medium.

Jon Kravis ’99, organizer of the Debate Union, felt that this was one of the WCDU’s strongest debates. “Strossen and Meese were both dynamic speakers and solid debaters, and the faculty and students were, as usual, outstanding. In my opinion. Brian and Amanda set the standard for student performance in a Union debate, especially in their rebuttals.”