As much as anything, the decision of the three judge court in the case of American Civil Liberties Union vs. Reno was about the role of personal responsibility. The decision, which held certain sections of the Communications Decency Act to be unconstitutional, is virtually assured to be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Notwithstanding such appeal, the underlying theme of the value we place on personal responsibility ought not change no matter how the esoterica of the First Amendment is applied.

        As with life generally, life on the Net is not about blaming others for the ills of society but accepting the responsibility for ourselves. (See the article e-THICS (SM) on this site.) However, to look at the way we behave, behave by electing those legislators who reflect our lack of personal responsibility and so pass legislation such as the CDA, one might begin to believe that the world actually was about blaming others. Our children, the idea seems to be, are corrupted because we have somehow lost the values of decades ago. Thus, the idea continues, we should legislate those values and all will be right with the e-world.

        By acting with a sense of responsibility for ourselves, we empower ourselves. Taking control of our own lives is what being free is about. Turning over control of our lives to others, in the guise of blaming them for something that we create, is to render ourselves powerless.

        It is easier to blame others for our lack of control over our lives. We can blame the purveyors of what some have called "indecent" material for corrupting our children, the same children who live in our homes, who are subject to our influences far more than they are to the influences of postings on an Internet newsgroup. We can blame cigarette manufacturers for making us smoke and giving us cancer, heart disease and the like. It is easy to do this. Disempowering to do so, but easier. It makes us victims and many of us enjoy remaining victims in our lives. It seems to relieve us of responsibility.

        If, on the other hand, we accept responsibility for our lives, then there is no one to blame. And if there is no one to blame, many of us find that to be an uncomfortable position in which to live. Personal responsibility in this context means the responsibility to teach values to our children so that they are free to learn and experience without being adversely affected by that which exists both in the real world and on the Net.


        The Court stated:
The government asserts that shielding minors from access to indecent materials is the compelling interest supporting the CDA. It cites in support the statements of the Supreme Court that "'[i]t is evident beyond the need for elaboration that a State's interest in `safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of a minor' is`compelling,'" New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 757 (1982)(quoting Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 607 (1982)), and "'there is a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors. This interest extends to shielding minors from the influence of literature that is not obscene by adult standards.'
        That the state has such a compelling interest is not a point we should quickly be prepared to concede. Surely the state has a compelling interest in protecting the welfare of children from such menaces as guns, the horrors of war, the lack of equal educational opportunities, and the dangers of unhealthy water and unbreathable air. It does not appear however that there is as much enthusiasm for such regulation as there is for regulating photos of people making love.

    Making love is far more uncomfortable for many adults than making war.

    Where is the state's interest in protecting children from ideas? In this area, it appears a better argument that such is best left to parents. And if best left to parents, then for parents to abdicate such responsibilities appears to send the precisely opposite message to the children. The message it sends is that we as adults and as their parents are unwilling to teach them about moral values, about sexuality. We prefer prohibition to instruction. It is the very act of prohibiting access that creates its appeal. The surest way to create a "yes" is to mandate a "no." We deny others the right to access this material because we are ourselves afraid of it. Pretending that we are doing so in the guise of protecting children is hypocrisy.


        Since not all children who view "indecent" material are going to become corrupted, it follows that it cannot be the material which does the corrupting. Rather, it follows that it is the influence such material has, or does not have, on the individual child that perhaps does the corrupting. And such influence is the direct result of the responsibility each parent has taken in raising those children. Even if the state has such an interest, it does not relieve us, as adults and as parents, of the responsibility of teaching our children appropriate behavior. It follows, instead, that it is the underlying value systems with which the children grow up that determines the impact such material may have upon them. And such underlying value systems must come from us.

        If the parents have defaulted, punishing a sysop or some dirty old man in the hinterland seems ridiculous in the extreme. But such is the "logic" of the idea of such regulation.

        There is no one "out there" that is creating the e-world. We are creating the e-world. It is not like that world is there and we are here. After all, "the world is only all of us added together." (Hoffman, The Tao of Money, p.29) What our new world can become is a product of what each of us can become. As we find our own personal ethics, we can create new ethics on a collective scale. But we can only find such ethics within ourselves. It is not out there.

        And if that ethic is to come from us, we must have it inside to give. But many of us refuse to accept personal responsibility because we are not free. We are not free because we feel we are victims of the purveyors of dirty pictures. So instead of trying to become free, trying to teach our children about becoming free, we perpetuate the very victim mentality that inevitably leads to the child seeing himself or herself as a victim.

        Only those who are free can cease being victims. Only those who are free can teach their children to be free. Blaming others because we are not free does not work no matter how loudly we may scream. But there are apparently a fair number of loud screamers.

    It is not a pretty picture.

© 1996 Ivan Hoffman


This article is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. The specific facts that apply to your matter may make the outcome different than would be anticipated by you. You should consult with an attorney familiar with the issues and the laws.


No portion of this article may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of the author.

For a related spin on these ideas: see "Opinions" and "Unalienable Rights"



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