Alarm over government move to curb Web

By Published on .

Marketers and the media are warning that the U.S. Department of Justice's broad argument for reinstating a ban on "obscene" Internet content threatens advertisers' ability to use the Web and could have grave impact on all advertising.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court last week, the Association of National Advertisers and the Media Institute charged that the Justice Department's defense of the Communications Decency Act as a necessary step "for the protection of children" would open the door to broad regulation of advertising and marketing aimed at adults.

"Today, would-be regulators of speech routinely attempt to dress up censorship in the cloak of protection of children," the brief says.

COURT TO CONSIDER APPEAL

The ban on obscene Internet content was overturned in 1996 by a lower court, but an appeal is due to be considered this year by the Supreme Court. The Justice Department defends the obscenity restriction in part by suggesting the ban isn't censorship but merely an attempt to limit the harmful "secondary effect" on children.

The advertiser brief warns that the "secondary" argument could be applied to a wide variety of advertising:

"Many would argue that minors do not have First Amendment rights to receive advertising ... [for] guns, tobacco products, promotional sweepstakes, Indian casinos, alcohol beverages or many fee-based telephone services ... Under the government's reasoning, as long as a legislature claimed to be restricting such advertisements to protect minors, it would be able to deprive adults of those messages."

`UNDERVALUING RIGHTS'

The brief adds: "While there are certainly contexts in which government has a compelling interest in protecting children, the notion that First Amendment rights are somehow reduced whenever a government asserts that interest is troubling enough in the indecency [case]. Extension to truthful, non-misleading commercial speech for lawful products and services reflects an impermissible undervaluing of the rights of advertisers and consumers."

Copyright February 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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