United States

UNITED STATES President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act into law last February, creating a great threat to free expression. However, a three-judge appeals court ruled on June 12 in Philadelphia that the act violates the First Amendment to the Constitution. The CDA attempts to regulate obscenity on the Internet. The court issued an injunction prohibiting the government from enforcing the act. The CDA called for as much as a $250,000 fine and up to two years in prison for distributing indecent material to youngsters. It also made it illegal to distribute abortion-relatedinformation on the Internet. It is expected the government will appeal the ruling. About a month and a half later, a second court, this one in New York, also declared the act unconstitutional. A three-judge panel granted a preliminary injunction to The American Reporter, an online publication, holding that the act is over broad. The court rejected the publication's claim that the act was unconstitutionally vague. The Philadelphia decision went further than this ruling, finding that the law was too vague as well as too broad. The panel ruled that section 223(d) of the act, which set criminal penalties for knowingly making indecent materials available to minors on the Internet, was over broad because it "serves as a ban on constitutionally protected indecent communication between adults." The case will be expedited on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, as specified within the statute. The Department of Justice is considering combining its appeal with the ACLU v. Reno case appealed in late June (The American Reporter v. Reno) Last February, Central Intelligence Agency Director John M. Deutch declared that in supposedly "rare" situations the Central Intelligence Agency would consider using journalists in espionage operations. Associated Press President Louis D. Boccardi said that if the CIA was not prohibited from using journalists for espionage, journalists throughout the world would be exposed "to a level of danger that's extremely worrisome." Four news media organizations have called for a ban on the use of journalists by intelligence agencies. In a letter to the Senate and House Intelligence committees, the North American National Broadcasters Association, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the World Press Freedom Committee declared that: "Journalists in hazardous situations should not have to fear for their lives because others may believe they are not what they say they are." An amendment to the 1997 Intelligence Bill prohibits the CIA from using journalists as spies. However, the amendment allows the president to waive the ban if national security issues are at stake. The amendment does not prohibit CIA agents from posing as journalists. Rep. Randy Tate (R-Wash.) introduced the Electronic Freedom of Information Amendments Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. A similar bill was introduced last year in the Senate. Both bills attempt to place electronic records on the same plane as hard-copy records. Tate's bill requires government agencies to expedite review of requests from those who demonstrate a "compelling need" for information. The standard is applied to those persons "engaged in disseminating information." President Clinton's testimony in a criminal fraud and conspiracy trial was ordered sealed from the public and the press last June by a federal District Court judge in Little Rock, Arkansas. Judge George Howard, Jr. found that First Amendment rights of access were satisfied by permitting the press and public to be present at the trial where the video testimony was played, thereby allowing the media to report on the testimony as part of the trial proceedings. He did not reach the issue of whether there was a common law right of access to the videotape. But Howard acknowledged the concern raised by attorneys for the president that clips from the video would be used against Clinton in the upcoming presidential election or for commercial purposes, and would "compromise the dignity of the Presidency." A media coalition argued that the law does not permit "closing a judicial record to protect a candidate for public office." The group - consisting of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Capital Cities/ABC, Turner Broadcasting System, NBC and CBS - asserted further that there is no basis for sealing part of the judicial record where "no jeopardy has been shown to national security interests, privacy interests or fair trial rights." In mid-July, a coalition of media groups petitioned a federal District Court in Little Rock for immediate access to a second Videotape of testimony by President Clinton in a criminal case. Clinton's deposition, taped in early July, was part of the banking fraud trial of Arkansas bankers Herby Branscum, Jr. and Robert Hill. The coalition, which includes the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, television networks and others, argued that the media and public are entitled to access to the tape under First Amendment-based rights of access to criminal proceedings. In addition, they stated that the public has a vital interest in knowing what takes place in the courts, which requires access to copies of judicial documents presented as evidence in open court. In early August, the Federal Communications Commission adopted regulations that require educational programming for children. The rules were generated following an agreement struck by President Clinton and network executives. Broadcasters are reqUired to air three educational hours per week or risk denial of broadcast license renewal. In mid-August, a group of media organizations challenged a blanket gag order and the sealing of transcripts in the civil suit filed by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman against 0.J. Simpson. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki barred all parties, jurors, counsel and witnesses from expressing opinions to the media or in public places within hearing of the general public concerning the evidence or "whether the defendant did or did not commit the homicides." On August 13, prior to imposing the gag order, Fujisaki conducted a status conference in chambers, outside the presence of the media and the public, and ordered the transcripts sealed. The judge stated that he will seal transcripts of future bench conferences and other hearings that are conducted outside of the jury's presence until the conclusion of trial. The media argued to the state Court of Appeal in Santa Monica that there was no justification for such a sweeping imposition on important free speech rights, and that the lower court had failed to balance the interests of the public and the parties or to consider less restrictive measures. The group also argued that the sealing order violates the First Amendment presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings in the absence of a clear showing that public access will infringe on the parties' right to a fair trial.