Mike Godwin's Anti-Censorship Speech at CMU

(Republished by permission. This speech is copyright 1994 by Mike Godwin.)

My name is Mike Godwin, and I'm a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier
Foundation. My organization, EFF, stands for the proposition that freedom
of speech must be protected, not only in the traditional media of speech,
print, and broadcasting, but also in the vital new medium of computer

We are not here merely because we are angry, but also because we are
grieving over the imminent death of academic freedom at CMU. This fight is
not over yet--they still want to review the alt.sex newsgroups and kill
the ones they find most embarrassing.

You see, this new medium is ultimately going to become the most important
medium for citizens of the United States, and of the world. It is a medium
far different from the telephone, which is only a one-to-one medium,
ill-suited for reaching large numbers of people. It is a medium far
different from the newspaper or TV station, which are one-to- many media,
ill-suited for feedback from the audience. For the first time in history,
we have a many-to-many medium, in which you don't have to be rich to have
access, and in which you don't have to win the approval of an editor or
publisher to speak your mind. Usenet and the Internet, as part of this new
medium, hold the promise of guaranteeing, for the first time in history,
that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of the press means as
much to each individual as it does to Time Warner, or to Gannett, or to
the New York Times.

Of course, the Supreme Court has long held that, at least in theory,
freedom of the press applies as much to "the lonely pamphleteer" as it
does to the editors of a major urban daily newspaper. But the Net puts
this theory into practice. And it is because the Net holds the promise of
being the most democratizing communications medium in the history of the
planet that it is vital that we prevent the fearful and the ignorant from
attempting to control your access to it.

That's precisely what is happening here at Carnegie-Mellon. There is a
strong sense here that, merely because you are students, and because some
of you are minors, CMU must protect you from yourselves. They claim that
if they don't cut off all access to these newsgroups, for everyone on
campus, they'll not only risk perverting you by exposing you to sexually
oriented materials, but they'll also be legally liable.

Their claims are wrong. First of all, it's not true that the *only* way to
prevent minors from having access to this material is to deny *everyone*
access to it. It is clear to me that the administrators haven't explored
any alternatives other than the most expensive and infeasible.

Secondly, there is little if any risk of legal liability for the
University for carrying these newsgroups, since Usenet is so large that no
one can be presumed to have knowledge of all the content of Net traffic,
and without proof of that knowledge, says the Supreme Court, there can be
no liability. And no university anywhere in the country has ever, at any
time, been held liable to any degree for carrying the alt.sex newsgroups.

Third, the risk that the 17-year-olds who enter this University as
freshmen are unfamiliar with the materials that are carried in these
newsgroups is exceedingly low. Remember, we're talking about high-school
graduates here! I submit that if any entering freshmen haven't encountered
material that deals with human sexuality before now, CMU has an
affirmative duty to expose them to it.

Some members of the University staff have been reluctant to hear these
arguments. When I spoke yesterday with attorney Jackie Kastelnik of the
University's legal office, she asked me how I got interested in this case.
I told her that I had been contacted by several concerned CMU students. At
that point she told me that she was not interested in debating me or being
informed about the legal issues involved.

But she did say this much to me:  "So what if the risk is low! We don't
want to be a test case!"  To which my response is this: CMU, your lawyers
have forgotten the meaning of the Constitution they have sworn to uphold.

Indeed, it's ironic that an institution that focuses so much on memory--of
our sciences, our knowledge, our traditions, our values--has displayed so
much forgetfulness about the meaning of a University, and has been so
inconsistent in deciding what they want you to remember. Remember, before
you expressed your concerns, they were ready to kill any newsgroup that
dealt with sexual material.

They wanted you to remember the meaning of the Periodic Table, but they
wanted you to forget that the chemistry between lovers is one of the most
beautiful things we know.

They wanted you to remember the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, but they
hoped you forget that the fundamental fact of human sexuality shapes our
entire existence.

They wanted you to remember safety in the lab, but they wanted you to
forget alt.sex.safe.

They wanted you to remember the poetry of Dante and Shakespeare and
Shelley, but they wanted you to forget that human sexuality, which often
inspired these poets, is equally the inspiration of those who write
stories and poems for rec.arts.erotica.

It's very clear that this university is all-too- willing to seek a
relationship with the Department of Defense, but all-too-unwilling to
defend your online discussion of sexual relationships. This is ironic,
since this university is ostensibly training you to function as adults in
this society, yet it has insisted on treating you like children.

I've talked about what CMU wants you to forget--now let's talk about what
they have forgotten.

They've forgotten that the Constitution presumptively protects speech and
expression about sexual matters, even when that speech and expression may
be offensive.

They've forgotten that the Constitution does not allow governments to ban
sexual expression for adults merely because there is some risk that
children may see it.

They've forgotten that, when it comes to the Bill of Rights, what you
don't use, you lose. The First Amendment is a terrible thing to waste.

As we can see from yesterday's election results, we're living in a
conservative era. But the issue at stake here is not one that should
divide liberals and conservatives, who have always shared a belief in the
importance of individual liberty. In particular, conservatives should
insist that CMU not alter its principles in the face of pressure from what
may well be a paternalistic government.

But of course it's worth remembering that there has been no such pressure
yet. The University has been misleading you as to the risks of carrying
this material. And it may be misleading you as to its motives. I strongly
suspect that the real reason the Administration tried to yank these
newsgroups is that it is embarrassed by them. I spoke with a member of the
Administration this morning, and he told me that the University doesn't
want to have to defend carrying sexually explicit materials--it's ironic
that such a highly educated group is afraid that it won't find the words
necessary to defend discourse about a central aspect of the human

If they lack courage, it's up to you to supply it. Tell the CMU
Administration that you came here with the expectation that CMU would live
up to the highest principles of academic freedom. Tell them that you
expect them to fight as strongly for your freedom of speech and freedom of
inquiry as the administrations of Harvard or MIT would.

As Arsenio says, "It's time." Time to remind CMU about the meaning of
freedom. And time to tell them once and for all: "No more censorship!"

I urge you not to accept it when the authorities tell you that CMU, as a
private institution, is not bound by the First Amendment, and therefore
can do anything it likes. This is, of course, quite true, but the issue
has never been what CMU is permitted to do--instead, it's been what CMU
*should* do if they are to sustain a commitment to academic freedom.

This morning I spoke with a member of the Administration who told me at
least twice during our talk that he is a teacher and admirer of James
Joyce's ULYSSES--also one of my very favorite books--so he understands the
issues raised one someone tries to ban works based on their purported
obscenity. When I heard this from him, I felt sad-- how could he possibly
have missed the lessons we learned in this society when books like
ULYSSES, TROPIC OF CANCER, and LOLITA were litigated in the courts?

It's very easy, I think, to proclaim that you understand the issue of
obscenity because you're willing to defend a book that was vindicated half
a century ago.

What he doesn't seem to realize is that *this* fight--the one about online
freedom of speech--is the one that matters now.

Steve Jackson Games | SJ Games vs. the Secret Service