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Wednesday, February 3, 1999 Published at 04:20 GMT

World: Americas

Analysis: Free speech caught in the Net

Defendant Catherine Ramey: "A moral and constitutional outrage"

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The $100m damages awarded against the anti-abortion Nuremberg Files Website has important implications for free expression on the Internet.

The jury in Portland, Oregon, decided there was a limit to what could be said on the Net and their verdict will serve as a warning to any Websites or service providers hosting extreme views.

The jury sided with the arguments of lawyers representing Planned Parenthood, four doctors and a clinic that the listing of abortion doctors' names and details on the site amounted to compiling a hit list for terrorists.

The action was launched after Dr Barnett Slepian's name was crossed off the list last October when he was killed by a sniper bullet.

Free speech culture

The Internet is difficult to regulate or censor because of the ability to easily disseminate and copy information to sites set up all over the world.

[ image: Webmasters argued freedom of speech]
Webmasters argued freedom of speech
There is also a strong culture that believes the Net as a medium should uphold free speech.

Internet Service Providers have been torn between filtering out Web content that might be considered harmful to children and allowing every kind of view to be represented and all information to be posted.

In January, a Florida abortion clinic filed a suit against Compuserve for allowing access to a database which helped pro-life activists get personal information on patients at the clinic.

Pennsylvania filed a suit last October against white supremacists whose Website contained threats against state employees.

"Free speech does not give you the right to threaten to kill someone whether it be through the mail, in person, or on the Internet," said the state's Attorney General Mike Fisher.

Blocking software

America Online has been criticised in the past for allowing Web pages to be set up by the Ku Klux Klan.

America's Anti-Defamation League has registered numerous Web addresses with racist connotations to prevent such groups getting hold of them.

It has also offered filtering software to prevent access to sites promoting racial hatred.

In the largely unregulated and liberal environment of the Internet, technology has been the only effective censor up till now.

Users can employ software to block access from their computer systems to sites containing offensive material, but the sites will still exist for those who share the same interests and wish to visit.

Unconstitutional Act

Attacks by politicised hackers have been one haphazard weapon used against extremist sites. Now the American courts are increasingly becoming involved.

Attempts to legislate have not been successful. Hours before a Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was due to become law, a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional on Monday.

COPA would have made it illegal for commercial sites to knowingly transmit material to children that is deemed "harmful to minors".

The bill had been passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton late last year, but civil liberties groups successfully challenged it as violating free speech rights.

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