EPIC logo
ACLU Trial Update 4/12/96


 o   Government Witness: Censor First, Ask Questions Later

 o   Plaintiffs Waive Rebuttal of Government Testimony 

 o   Oral Arguments Moved Up to Friday, May 10th

Monday, April 15, 1996

     PHILADELPHIA--Testifying on the last day of trial in ACLU v. 
Reno, government witness Dan Olsen told a three-judge panel that 
the best way to comply with the censorship law would be to block 
all possibly "indecent" words and images, until "questionable" 
material could be reviewed and labeled for adult consumption.  
That process could take weeks or months, he told the court.  

     Using this triage approach, as Olsen described it, Internet 
content providers would have to virtually shut down their sites 
until they could complete the task of self-censoring using his 
"-L18" system.  The proposed system requires content creators to 
determine whether their words or images are "indecent" or 
"patently offensive," and if so attach an electronic "-L18" label.  

     Olsen, a professor of computer science at Brigham Young 
University, returned to the court today to conclude his testimony 
in the last day of a trial that could well determine the future of 
free speech in cyberspace.  The consolidated cases of ACLU v. Reno 
and ALA v. DOJ challenge provisions of the Communications Decency 
Act that criminalize making available to minors "indecent" or 
"patently offensive" speech.

     "When the government forces you to censor your expression of 
words or images or face jail time, that's a pretty clear violation 
of the First Amendment," said Christopher Hansen, who conducted 
cross-examination of the witness for the ACLU.  

     Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter questioned Olsen closely on 
the effect the censorship scheme would have on Internet sites 
containing "a great deal of material not offensive to anybody," 
that would have to be blocked for review.  "Can you think of any  
time in history when we have blocked access to material in 
advance?" Judge Sloviter asked. 

     The judges also wondered how the labeling scheme would apply 
to speech in other Internet forums such as e-mail or chat rooms.  
Posing a hypothetical question, Judge Stewart Dalzell asked Olsen 
whether an 18-year-old discussing the censorship law in a chat 
room with minors would have to "label" a phrase such as "Fuck the 
CDA" before transmitting his words.  Yes, Olsen replied, if he  
wanted to be protected from prosecution. 

     In his testimony on Friday and today, Olsen acknowledged that 
PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), an alternate 
system described by plaintiff witnesses, would allow parents to 
control their children's Internet viewing without requiring broad 

     According to MIT expert Dr. Albert Vezza, who testified 
Friday on behalf of plaintiffs, expected industry-wide acceptance 
of the PICS standard will enable any number of third-party 
organizations such as the PTA, the Christian Coalition or the Boy 
Scouts of America to rate content for parents and other Internet 
users.  As early as this summer, he said, Microsoft Corporation 
plans to issue software embedded with the PICS protocol, and other 
corporations are expected to follow suit.

     In addition, plaintiff lawyers pointed out, unlike Olsen's "-
L18" system, PICS would allow users to block all "untagged" 
Internet content from the receiving end, instead of requiring the 
providers to censor their material.  This feature is especially  
important because overseas Internet providers are not subject to 
U.S. laws.  By contrast, said ACLU lawyer Chris Hansen, user 
empowerment software like PICS can block a site regardless of its 
origin.  "The government's proposal -- and the law itself -- does 
not take into account the global nature of the medium," Hansen 
said.  "If the censorship law is upheld, minors will still be able 
to access any foreign site without restriction."

     The key to the PICS system, and to keeping the Internet a 
free medium for users of all ages, Hansen added, is parental 
empowerment.  "While there will always be objectionable material 
in any communications forum, the responsibility -- and the tools 
-- for guiding children's interaction should remain with the 

     At the conclusion of today's trial phase, plaintiff's lawyers 
informed the court that they would waive the option to rebut the 
government's testimony.  After a short scheduling conference, oral 
arguments were moved up to Friday, May 10, instead of June 3, and 
the April 26 rebuttal day was canceled.

     Under procedures for oral arguments, each side will have two 
hours to make its case and answer questions from the judges.  
Plaintiffs and defendants are required to submit briefs and 
proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the judges by 
April 29.  After a ruling by the three-judge panel, under 
expedited provisions, any appeal would be made directly to the 
U.S. Supreme Court.

     Lawyers for the ACLU appearing before the judges are 
Christopher Hansen, Marjorie Heins, Ann Beeson, and Stefan 
Presser, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Return to the EPIC Censorship Lawsuit Page