Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bill Clinton's Statements About Obama Should Be Taken with a Big Grain of History

Bill Clinton is clearly playing a major role in Hillary Clinton's contest with Barack Obama and John Edwards for the Democratic nomination for President. He is certainly entitled to support his wife, and indeed speak for or against any candidate. But the media accord a lot attention to what he says, because he is a former President. And this means his record as President is germane to what he says about any candidate, and voters should keep Bill Clinton's record as President in mind when they evaluate his current statements.

With that as my guide, I would like to briefly recount an episode in the Clinton Presidency that did not receive too much attention at that time, and many Americans may be unaware of today.

Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act into law in 1996. It was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a year later, which probably accounts for why many Americans know little about it. But a brief examination of Bill Clinton's actions and explanations regarding the CDA reveals a lot about the former President who is now on the attack against Barack Obama.

The CDA was intended to protect children against Internet porn. But it was drafted in terms wider than necessary to do this job, and in fact sought to punish anyone who published any "indecent" or "offensive" words on the Internet, for whatever reason, if those words could possibly ever be read by children.

The Republican dominated Congress passed this Act handily. Many Democrats joined in. It was part of a larger act, which included opening up cable television providers to more competition.

The Communications Decency Act part of this package was clearly unconstitutional - in violation of the First Amendment. Bill Clinton signed it into law, anyway.

When questioned about why he signed such an act into law, Bill Clinton replied that he didn't like it, but figured the Supreme Court would strike it down. He could have stopped the Act in its tracks by simply vetoing the legislation. He could have sent it back to Congress and said, give me the part of the larger act that opens up cable, and leave out the unconstitutional attack on Internet free speech.

Had Congress overridden his veto, the country and the First Amendment would have been no worse off.

The Act carried powerful penalties for those convicted of its violation - hundreds of thousands in fines and two years in prison. Joe Shea, editor of the online American Reporter, soon published an open letter online denouncing Congress for passing this Act. He used some salty language in his letter. In other words, Shea's letter contained "offensive" language, but obviously was published in a political not a pornographic context.

Bill Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno went after Shea, anyway. And a year later, the Supreme Court struck this law down.

But where was Bill Clinton's honor and courage? What if the Supreme Court had not found the CDA unconstitutional? (Its record on supporting the First Amendment in the 20th century is spotty, at best.) Joe Shea could have gone to prison for two years. Is not the President's job to stand up for what he believes is right, and not pander to Congress and trust in the Supreme Court to correct this error?

Or perhaps Bill Clinton agreed with the CDA, and didn't care about the First Amendment.

That's the problem with Bill Clinton - he frequently has trouble speaking and acting, politically, in ways which stand up to rational scrutiny.

So the Communications Decency Act goes down in history as a severe restriction on our political speech that Bill Clinton enabled, and which almost came to be. I wrote about this at some length in my 1998 The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. This got the issue some critical attention, but so much has happened since then that it's rarely discussed nowadays.

But voters would do well to bear this incident in mind when they consider what to make of Bill Clinton's attacks on Barack Obama. Does he really believe what he says, when he exaggerates and misrepresents what Barack Obama is saying? Unfortunately, in this situation, the Supreme Court has no authority to overturn Bill Clinton's actions or his statements.

As I've also indicated here many times, I think Hillary Clinton in the White House would be a very positive development. I'm supporting Barack Obama, but I would not be at all unhappy with either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards as President. My sincere recommendation to the Clinton campaign at this point, then, would be to get Bill out of the picture, off the circuit - if they can.
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