Learning the Basics – Free Speech and Online Pornography

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    The Internet is largely a creation of the U.S. government, and the laws and traditions of the United States, specifically the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, have heavily influenced the extent of information that you can find online. The most important tradition for online publishing is freedom of speech, which is the right to express opinions, information, or ideas in public or in private, regardless of content, without interference by a government. This free speech tradition includes allowing adults to use the Internet to view or transmit pornography. There are limits to free speech, especially when it comes to obscenity and child pornography.

    <u><b>What Is Pornography?</b></u>

    Pornography is any material that is sexually explicit and that is intended to cause sexual arousal. Such material does not have to involve descriptions or depictions of nudity or sexual activity. In the United States, most forms of sexually explicit material are protected by the First Amendment, making it legal for adults to create, publish, or consume such material. While some Internet service providers (ISPs) may not allow pornographic material, there are many who do, and there is no shortage of pornographic materials online.

    <b>Pornography And Obscenity</b>

    Pornographic material is different from obscene material. Obscene material has been legally determined to be sexually explicit, offensive to conventional standards of decency, and lacking in serious literary, scientific, artistic, or political value. It also does not have First Amendment protection, so it is illegal for anyone in the U.S. to view, possess, publish, or transmit such material. Obscene material, if discovered online, would likely be quickly removed by an ISP.

    <u><b>Pornography And Child Pornography</b></u>

    Like material that is considered to be obscene, material that is considered to be child pornography is illegal for anyone in the United States to view, possess, or publish. Child pornography is any kind of visual depiction of a person under the age of 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct. The conduct does not have to involve either sexual acts or nudity. If discovered, ISPs will not only remove this kind of material, they will likely immediately contact law enforcement as well.

    <b>Children and Free Speech</b>

    Children can have many more restrictions on their free speech rights than adults. In the United States, both schools and libraries that accept federal funding for their online activities are required to restrict what children can do online. In these library systems, typically all computers in children’s areas of the library are only allowed filtered Internet access. While computers in designated children’s areas of libraries may have restrictions, libraries may allow parents to have restrictions on a child’s online access removed for computers in other parts of the library.

    <b>Free Speech and Public Libraries</b>

    Many U.S. libraries allow any adult to use the Internet to engage in any legal activity, including looking at hardcore pornography. While most libraries will not allow children to have unfiltered Internet access, some libraries allow children who are at least 17 to request that all filtering be removed from their account. Also, some libraries will not tell parents what activities their child does on the library’s computer system. Each library system may have different rules about Internet use, so be sure to ask your librarian for details.

    <b>Other Limitations to Free Speech</b>

    No country on earth, even countries with a long tradition of free speech, is without rules when it comes to what one can say or write online. Beyond the laws that governments may enforce, ISPs, workplaces, schools, and other organizations may have rules about what is or what is not allowed online.

    <b>Free Speech in Other Countries</b>

    Depending on where you are in the world, laws and traditions concerning free speech may quite different than the laws and traditions of the U.S. You should always be aware of the local rules before you go online, especially if breaking the rules have serious consequences.

    <u><b>Other Resources</b></u>

    The book Parenting and the Internet (Speedbrake Publishing, 2007) by Todd Curtis has more detailed information about online privacy and security, with advice on how to keep your child from being exposed to online pornography. Visit website for more information about the book.

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