The presence of the Internet in life today presents a challenge virtually impossible to address: namely, how can anything so omnipresent possibly be policed in any responsible way? This, of course, arises from the question of whether or not controls are even valid. The questions are asked nonetheless, as pornography, hate speech, and other highly controversial forms of commerce and expression expand as exponentially as the Internet itself expands. Never before has any means of communication so commanded every aspect of living, and on such a universal scale. This factor of extraordinary quantity, then, goes to issues of quality; the quantity of objectionable material is such that the quality of civil protections becomes open to debate. It is one thing to defend a theater owner’s right to run pornographic films at his cinema. When such “theaters” are available in every home and business, the proportions lead to questioning of the principle, and freedom of speech suddenly seems to be a relatively weak argument to defend this disturbing fact.
It is understandable, then, that people rethink issues of basic liberties. It is still, however, not a responsible reaction. If we embrace freedom of speech as a constitutional right, one completely protected by the foundations of society and government, we must accept that quantity cannot be allowed to limit it. Such a right, no matter the influx of objectionable material, can ever be subjected to limitations, because the right itself exists apart from circumstances. What it actually relies on, in fact, is society’s power to weaken or eliminate the objectionable by the right of choice. We all have the right to despise pornographic, or hate-based, material. We all have the right to broadcast our feelings about this as much as we choose to. If, however, we begin to legislate on content itself, a “slippery slope” of unprecedented dimensions must be created. Long before the Internet, for example, U..S. Courts have had enormous difficulty in defining pornography. A surplus of it available online, then, by no means renders such a determination any easier; it only means that a great many more people are affected. More importantly, the courts have never successfully defined and outlawed pornography because the law is built, ironically, to support it. Free speech has always presented problems, when forms of it have been blatantly objectionable. Unfortunately, the simple fact that these forms are now produced in immeasurable quantities cannot justify “tailoring” a basic right. As noted, it is entirely up to the discretion of the public to eliminate such things, for they can only exist when there is an audience for them.
This reality aside, the Internet does require a certain amount of watching, and more in regard to its communication presence. Hate speech is vile, but legal. When hate speech in a blog, however, indicates criminal actions of any kind, a line is crossed and liberties no longer apply. The same holds true for sexual predators uncovered in chat rooms, for these Internet activities violate the law as it would be violated away from any device. The means is unimportant, when the intent and/or actions are clearly illegal. This must be the determining element. The course here is still precarious, but it can be navigated; it relies on the courts determining, not censorship guidelines, but rights to privacy. As tricky as this strategy is, it is abetted by a simple fact: when individuals use the very public forum of the Internet to accomplish or encourage criminal ends, they waive the protections of constitutional rights because they are actively soliciting participation in criminality, or victims. Inflammatory speech, even of the most extreme kind, is protected until it suggests an actual plan or agenda. Then it is an open declaration of criminal intent, and the offender cannot broadcast this intent on the Internet and then plead privacy rights.