No stranger to the public eye, Donna Rice Hughes has rebounded from the Gary Hart sex scandal a decade ago to become a highly visible and vocal opponent of Internet pornography.
“I have been a pioneer in this area,” she tells freedomforum.org. “I didn’t hop on the bandwagon of fighting cyberporn, I helped to create it. The Internet is a wondrous medium that can enhance educational opportunities for our young people, but there is also some dangerous material in cyberspace.”
Her interest in protecting children from Net porn started about four and a half years ago when she joined Enough is Enough, a group in Washington, D.C., that campaigns against pornography.
“After a few weeks with Enough is Enough, I realized that there was harmful material freely available to anyone on the Internet, including young kids.”
Now serving as the group’s vice president of marketing and public relations, she has adopted what she calls a “three-pronged approach” for attacking the problem of Internet pornography by enlisting a three-way partnership between the public, the technology community and the legal community.
Hughes says she works on a daily basis with members of Congress and law enforcement officials to come up with ways to protect children online.
“The Internet is a whole new ball game. The benefits outweigh the risks, but it is vitally important to acknowledge these risks and take affirmative steps to combat the problem,” she says.
Looking for legislative solutions
Enough is Enough, with Hughes playing a key role, supported Congress’ first attempt at regulating cyberporn — a federal law known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reno v. ACLU that two provisions of the Communications Decency Act criminalizing “patently offensive” and “indecent” online communications violated First Amendment free-speech rights.
However, Hughes emphasizes that many provisions of the Communications Decency Act are still valid.
“The court only struck down those two provisions. It is important to realize that the provisions in the CDA still prohibit the transmission of obscenity online and child stalking online,” she says.
“What we were trying to do with the CDA was simply to segregate adult material from children on the Internet. A child cannot go into a bookstore and purchase a Hustler magazine, so why should a child be able to go on the Internet and obtain access to similar material?” she asks. “We simply wanted to extend to the Internet the current protections that are in place with respect to the print medium.”
In the wake of the court’s decision in Reno, other legislative proposals have been introduced, most notably Sen. Dan Coats’ “CDA II” and Rep. Michael Oxley’s Child Online Protection Act, the House equivalent of the Coats measure.
Hughes says these bills are “very narrowly tailored” ways of addressing the commercial distribution of online pornography.
“These laws target commercial pornographers and do not use an indecency standard but a harmful-to-minors standard which should make the law constitutional,” she says. “When Congress was discussing the Communications Decency Act, I worked with Representative Rich White who pushed for the ‘harmful-to-minors’ standard to be placed in the CDA.”
Hughes also supports Sen. John McCain’s Internet School Filtering Act introduced in February, which would require public schools and libraries that receive federal funds for Internet hook-ups to install some sort of blocking software on their computers.
“This measure doesn’t tell the public institutions what type of blocking software to use and exactly what their policy should be, but leaves some flexibility to each institution. All the law does is require those who receive federal funds to take a few extra steps,” she says.
Hughes disagrees with the stance taken by the American Library Association which opposes blocking software in public libraries. “The ALA basically says that all speech should be available to anyone. I disagree with the ALA’s view of the role of the librarian. I feel that libraries have selection policies and blocking software is no different. I mean you can’t go into many public libraries and read Hustler or Penthouse; why should it be different for the Internet?
“Allowing people to view pornography in public libraries creates a lot of discomfort and takes away from the benefits of the library,” she says.
Online primer for parents
Hughes recently published a book entitled Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, which she says is a “natural outgrowth” of her work.
“I wrote this book in part for parents so that they could close the techno-generation gap and learn all they can about protecting their kids from the dangers of unrestricted access on the Internet,” she says.
“Parents need to be aware of the material that exists out there on the Internet. Parents don’t have to be computer geeks in order to learn about protecting their children.
“This book discusses the rules and tools associated with Net pornography and the technological solutions that have been proposed to combat the problem.”
Hughes says she tried in her book to present a litany of information about the Internet in an easy-to-read format. For example, in one chapter Hughes explains legal terms such as indecency, material harmful to minors, obscenity and child pornography. She informs her readers about domain names, unsolicited e-mail, bulletin board services, USENET newsgroups and filtering software.
“My book is not meant to be leisurely reading, but to serve as a resource and handbook reference for parents,” she says. “Parents must become knowledgeable about the Internet and the tools that are available that can help make the Internet safe for their children.”
Hughes’ efforts to create greater public awareness about the Internet, pornography and safety tools include a leading role at the Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children held last December in Washington, D.C.
The summit was sponsored by a coalition that included representatives from government, education, nonprofit organizations, law enforcement agencies and the technology industry. The groups discussed various ways to make the Internet safer for kids. Hughes served on the summit’s steering committee and chaired various subcommittees.
More recently, she has taken an active part in America Links Up, which is a public awareness and education campaign also designed to make the Internet a safer place for kids.
“That is my main goal — making the Internet a safer place for children,” she says.
She insists her incessant efforts will not squelch adult free-speech rights.
“First of all, I am a First Amendment advocate; but all speech is not protected,” she says.
“I believe we can achieve a balance between protecting minors and protecting adult free-speech rights. The capabilities of technology will enable us to achieve both of these goals. We can protect our kids online and still protect free-speech rights. Protecting minors and preserving free-speech rights are not mutually exclusive.
“I love the Internet and believe in free speech. I just want to make it a safe place for kids.”