IN APPROVING a sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation's communications laws, the Senate Commerce Committee outdid itself, adding a noxious provision that mugs free speech on computer networks.
The provision strays perilously outside the customary rules that govern human expression in this country, either over the airwaves or on the printed page.
"I'm not trying to be a super censor," says Sen. Jim Exon, D-Neb., who authored the oppressive provision.
Well, trying or not, he has come uncomfortably close to succeeding.
His proposal would impose fines or up to $100,000 and jail terms of up to two years for those who dared to transmit over computer networks material that some official body or other considered "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent."
That should keep the super censors busy. Countless curses come to mind that would qualify as filthy, or at least indecent.
One wonders, too, whether even the Song of Solomon would pass. Would there be fines for quoting from this biblical text? Quotes from lots of renowned love sonnets would surely be suspect.
Passionate private love letters winging back and forth between growing friends would obviously be liable for rebuke, fine and -- look on the bright side -- maybe joint jail time.
Then there are the more practical questions. How liable would be the carriers of the lewd and indecent even though they
could not control what the content of the messages sent and received was?
Or how about a firm sending out pictures of voluptuous nudes, or extra photos from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, setting up computer shop in Nigeria or Sweden and allowing customers from around the globe an early peek? Who would be hauled into court then?
Sure, there are problems with smut in cyberspace. But the cure could be strikingly worse than the disease. The world of computer expression should not be confined to the cuddly pap of Mickey Mouse or even the stateliness of the Gettysburg Address.
Whatever guidelines Washington seeks to impose should not crush First Amendment protections. They should not tread beyond careful limitations defined by properly skeptical courts, such as those defining what is considered obscene.
Human expression racing along computer channels should be no less free and robust than human expression now and in the past in the arts, in radio and television, and in books, magazines and newspapers. Let adults, without offensive meddling by government censors, decide what they do and don't want to see and read. Free adults are capable of that decision.
The Exon gag pending before the Senate is too broad, too vague, too intrusive on human liberty; it is Orwellian. It threatens free speech and is probably unconstitutional.
Congress should get rid of it.