6.805/STS085: Readings on Computer Communications and Freedom of Expression

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
--Salman Rushdie, "In good faith"

Now, what I am trying to suggest to you is just to understand the moment in time we are at in which at least the people on the Internet know that when you do something through words, you do something.
-- Catharine MacKinnon (Discussing the Jake Baker case, March 9, 1995)

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought--not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
-- Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in U.S. v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644 (1929)

The Jeffersonian model for universal freedom which Mr. Gingrich so rightly applauds could not take into account the barbarisms of the modern mind. Nor could it imagine the genius by which such barbarisms can be disseminated as they are today, in seconds, to the remotest and still most innocent corners of the world. Someone, perhaps even the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is going to have to consider soon the implications, for ill as well as good, of our venture out onto the information superhighway, or else there are going to be some very messy electronic traffic accidents.
--Judge Robert Bork, "An Electronic Sink of Depravity," in the Spectator, (Feb. 4, 1995)

Cutting through the acronyms and argot that littered the hearing testimony, the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion. Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.
-- US District Judge Stewart Dalzell (June 12, 1996)

General Readings

This semester, our discussion of free expression on the internet will be dominated by the story of censorship and the Communications Decency Act, which has web page of its own in the archive, from which specific assignments will be made. There are also a few other pieces on this general topic that are good reading for context and background.

Recommended Readings

Landmark US Supreme Court decisions on communications and free expression

It's useful to read interpretations of Supreme Court decisions, but you should also read some of the actual decisions for yourself. Note that may decisions being with a syllabus that lists the basic findings in the case, before presenting the opinion(s) of the Justices.

In doing research on these and other cases, one outstanding reference is the Library of Congress's The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, an extensive set of annotations of Supreme Court cases up till 1992. You can locate cases with the aid of an on-line search engine, but it's probably easier to download the chapter on the First Amendment (780K!) and search with a text editor.

The Internet Censorship Saga: 1994-1997

This extensive story has a page of its own.

Other Material


The use of anonymous communication on the Internet has raised concerns, but also has its strong defenders. This issue has not been explicitly addressed by laws or by the Court, although it may well arise in the near future.

University computer policies

Many sticky issues of "civil behavior" on the network continue to be played out on college campuses. Here is some material dealing with this topic:


Hal Abelson (hal@mit.edu)
Mike Fischer (mfischer@mit.edu)
Joanne Costello (joanne@mit.edu)

Last modified: Mon, 8 Oct 2001 12:42:32 -0400