From the Provost

On the Communications Decency Act and its Implications

To the Penn community:

Recent federal legislation has significant implications for all members of the Penn community who use telecommunications or electronic networks. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton on February 8, includes provisions, known as the Communications Decency Act, that prohibit dissemination of certain materials to persons under the age of 18.

One provision prohibits using a telecommunications device to make and transmit any "obscene or indecent" communication to anyone known to be under 18. Another prohibits using any "interactive computer service" to display, in a manner available to anyone under 18, any communication that, "in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs." While the terms "indecent" and "patently offensive" are not defined in the law and their meaning is unclear, the terms may be construed to include materials with literary, scientific, artistic, or educational value.

The constitutionality of these provisions has been challenged in Federal court on the grounds that they prohibit speech protected by the First Amendment and are impermissibly vague and overbroad. The court has entered an order that temporarily bars enforcement of the prohibition against "indecent" communications, but the order does not bar enforcement of the Act's other provisions. Penn believes the constitutional challenges are important and should be resolved quickly, because we believe the Act may chill the free exchange of ideas and information that is central to the University's mission. It may also significantly restrict the development and usefulness of new forms of electronic communication.

Members of the Penn community should be aware, however, that although enforcement of the "indecency" provision is temporarily barred, the bill's other provisions are and will remain in effect unless overturned or repealed. Those provisions subject violators to substantial criminal penalties. Individuals or institutions that make information or materials available on electronic networks have an obligation to comply with the statute. Individuals who distribute information through the University's computing resources are responsible for the content they provide and may wish to evaluate the material they make available in light of the Act's requirements. The University is unable to prevent information that is posted to publicly accessible resources, such as newsgroups and homepages, from becoming available to persons under the age of 18.

We regret the uncertainty and disruption caused by this legislation and will try to keep you informed (via Almanac and the University's home page on the WorldWideWeb) of significant developments as they occur.

-- Stanley Chodorow, Provost


February 20, 1996
Volume 42 Number 21

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