Doubts about the constitutionality of a law intended to restrict indecent material on the Internet were borne out last week. A three-judge federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia found the Communications Decency Act, passed last February, blatantly at odds with the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
After the judges' ringing support for the Internet as a vital forum for expression - deserving, perhaps, even greater protection than that afforded other media - supporters of the law, or at least of its goals, might be expected to back off.
But that won't happen, and for good reason. The motives behind the decency law are commendable. Children do need to be defended from the harmful effects of lewd, debasing material. The authors of the law may have felt the most efficient way to provide that defense, in the realm of computer communications, was to curb the purveyors.
In cyberspace, however, this is a Herculean task. The offensive material could originate almost anywhere on the globe. Beyond that, who are the purveyors? The individuals who post the stuff, or the on-line services that set up electronic forums and provide Internet access? Attacks on either front could have a powerfully dampening effect on free expression, especially since no one using the Internet could be sure just what passes the law's standard and what doesn't.
The lawmakers and President Clinton, who signed the act, must have known that they were venturing into legal quicksand with the term "indecent." This isn't out-and-out obscenity, which was banned by existing law, but a category that could include a wide range of adult themes normally protected by the First Amendment.
Of necessity, efforts to shield children from unsuitable material on the Internet may have to turn elsewhere. The most important line of defense is the home, or school, where young people launch their Internet forays. Filtering software is available to put certain cyber realms off limits; such products will increasingly become more sophisticated and useful. Nothing, of course, can replace an attentive parent or other responsible adult.
The on-line services have their part to play, too, in classifying material for users and offering packages tailored to differing tastes and standards.
Those in Congress intent on combatting Internet smut would do well to consider strengthening these safeguards rather than persist in trying to tame the whole Net.
The latter endeavor hasn't run out of legal steam altogether. The Philadelphia ruling could end up before the US Supreme Court this fall, and that body, with its fine ideological balance, might see things differently. But not likely. The Communications Decency Act casts its net too far to avoid entanglement with fundamental issues of free speech. Its goals have to be pursued through other means.