Friday, March 07, 2008

COPA and public schools: what's the relevance now?

Should public school systems be concerned about COPA? I think so, although it has to be put in perspective.

In the Spring of 2005, when I was substitute teaching, I did have the experience of briefing some social studies and history teachers on the issue in their teachers’ work room during the “planning period,” at a Fairfax County secondary school. We looked up the 2004 Supreme Court Opinion (which called for a “trial on the merits” while leaving the injunction in place) in work rooms in the computer, and then I showed them a link on my own site of my visit to the oral arguments at the Supreme Court on March 2, 2004, link here.

Later that Spring, in Arlington, at the Career Center, I would address some students on Internet safey and COPA was mentioned at least briefly.

This turned out to be dangerous. My openness about my material got me in trouble the following fall at another high school, here.

COPA, the government claims (and still does, in its latest appeal to the Third Circuit) was aimed at preventing commercial pornographers from displaying “harmful to minors” material on “teasers.” It was essentially a “son of CDA”, supposedly allowing an adult-id mechanism, which the trial record shows could not be very effective, to provide an affirmative defense.

It the DOJ is to be believed, it hardly seems that these “teasers” are the main threats to kids on the Internet. Anybody who watched NBC Dateline and Chris Hansen’s sensational TCAP series about chatroom stings knows that. Furthermore, one of the biggest problems is kids posting inappropriate personal information about themselves and their families on the Internet, especially in social networking sites, for the future viewing of employers and schools. The ethical issues underlying this whole problem are well beyond the scope of COPA (they invoke the idea of “implicit content”).

It’s interesting how lawyers on both sides are well paid to write detailed briefs on matters that now seem to miss the real points that we should be debating.

Were I to have a similar opportunity to speak at school today, I would have to stress these other matters, but one new wrinkle is also content labeling. That’s a great idea, but already some proposed legislation in Congress would muck it up, with mandatory features affecting even non-adult portions of small business websites. One must proceed very carefully with this. The visitor can keep track of the legislation at my Wordpress blog, here. That link also lists some other laws (regarding filters used in school libraries) that are sometimes confused with COPA.

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