How Many Pieces of Silver?
Date: Mon, 12 Feb 96 15:11:30 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: How Many Pieces of Silver?
Forwarded-by: Lani Herrmann <email@example.com>
Forwarded-by: Lisa Schiff <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Forwarded-by: Robert Jacobson <email@example.com>
From: John Perry Barlow <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Here's another billet doux to Congress written by a retired trial judge in
Texas. Whatever you do, don't show this to your children. They've never
heard many of the words in it.
THE X-ON CONGRESS: INDECENT COMMENT ON AN INDECENT SUBJECT
by Steve Russell
American Reporter Correspondent
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- You motherfuckers in Congress have dropped
over the edge of the earth this time. I understand that very few of the
swarm of high dollar lobbyists around the Telecommunications Bill had any
interest in content regulation -- they were just trying to get their clients
an opportunity to dip their buckets in the money stream that cyberspace may
become -- but the public interest sometimes needs a little attention.
Keeping your eyes on what big money wants, you have sold out the First
First, some basics. If your children walked by a public park and
heard some angry sumbitches referring to Congress as "the sorriest bunch of
cocksuckers ever to sell out the First Amendment" or suggesting that "the
only reason to run for Congress these days is to suck the lobbyists' dicks
and fuck the people who sent you there," no law would be violated (assuming
no violation of noise ordinances or incitement to breach the peace). If
your children did not wish to hear that language, they could only walk away.
Thanks to your heads-up-your-ass dereliction of duty, if they read the same
words in cyberspace, they could call the FBI!
Cyberspace is the village green for the whole world. It is the same
as the village green our Founders knew as the place to rouse the rabble who
became Americans, but it is also different. Your blind acceptance of the
dubious -- make that dogass dumb -- idea that children are harmed by hearing
so-called dirty words has created some pretty stupid regulations without
shutting down public debate, but those stupid regulations will not import to
cyberspace without consequences that even the public relations whores in
Congress should find unacceptable.
In cyberspace, there is no time. A posted message stays posted
until it is wiped. Therefore, there is no way to indulge the fiction that
children do not stay up late or cannot program a VCR.
In cyberspace, there is no place. The "community standards" are
those of the whole world. An upload from Amsterdam can become a download in
Idaho. By trying to regulate obscenity and indecency on the Internet, you
have reduced the level of expression allowed consenting adults to that of
the most anal retentive blueballed fuckhead U.S. attorney in the country.
The Internet is everywhere you can plug in a modem. Call Senator Exon an
"ignorant motherfucker" in Lincoln, Nebraska and find yourself prosecuted in
In cyberspace, you cannot require the convenience store to sell
Hustler in a white sleeve. The functional equivalent is gatekeeper
software, to which no civil libertarian has voiced any objection.
Gatekeeper software cannot be made foolproof, but can you pandering pissants
not see that any kid smart enough to hack into a Website is also smart
enough to get his hands on a hard copy of Hustler if he really wants one?
In cyberspace, there is the illusion of anonymity but no real
privacy. It is theoretically possible for any Internet server to seine
through all messages for key words (although it seems likely the resulting
slowdown would be noticeable). Perhaps some of you read about America
OnLine's attempt to keep children from reading the word "breast?" An
apparently unforeseen consequence was the shutdown of a discussion group of
breast cancer survivors. Don't you think more kids are aware of "teat"
(pronounced "tit") than of "breast?" Can skirts on piano legs, er, limbs be
But silly shit like this is just a pimple on the ass of the long-
term consequences for politics, art and education. You have passed a law
that will get less respect than the 55 m.p.h. speed limit dead bang in the
middle of the First Amendment. Indecency is nothing but a matter of
fashion; obscenity is the same but on a longer timeline. This generation
freely reads James Joyce and Henry Miller and the Republic still stands. The
home of the late alleged pornographer D. H. Lawrence is now a beautiful
writers' retreat in the mountains above Taos, managed by the University of
Universities all have Internet servers, and every English Department
has at least one scholar who can read Chaucer's English -- but not on the
Internet anymore. Comparative literature classes might read Boccaccio --
but not on the Internet anymore. What if some U. S. Attorney hears about
Othello and Desdemona "making the beast with two backs" -- is interracial
sex no longer indecent anywhere in the country, or is Shakespeare off the
Did you know you can download video and sound from the Internet?
Yes, that means you can watch other people having sex if that is interesting
to you, live or on tape. Technology can make such things hard to retrieve,
but probably not impossible. And since you have swept right past obscenity
and into indecency, the baby boomers had better keep their old rock 'n roll
tapes off the Internet.
When the Jefferson Airplane sang "her heels rise for me," they were
not referring to a dance step. And if some Brit explains the line about
"finger pie" in Penny Lane, the Beatles will be gone. All of those school
boards that used to ban "The Catcher in the Rye" over cussing and spreading
the foul lie that kids masturbate can now go to federal court and get that
nasty book kept out of cyberspace.
But enough about the past. What about rap music? No, I do not care
much for it either -- any more than I care for the language you shitheads
have forced me to use in this essay -- but can you not see the immediate
differential impact of this law by class and race? What is your defense --
that there are no African-Americans on the Internet, since they are too busy
pimping and dealing crack? If our educational establishment has any sense
at all, they will be trying to see more teens of all colors on the Internet,
because there is a lot to be learned in cyberspace that has nothing to do
There are plenty of young people in this country who have legitimate
political complaints. When you dickheads get done with Social Security,
they will be lucky if the retirement age is still in double digits. But
thanks to the wonderful job the public schools have done keeping sex and
violence out, we have a lot of intelligent kids who cannot express
themselves without indecent language. I have watched lawyers in open court
digging their young clients in the ribs every time the word "fuck" slipped
Let's talk about this fucking indecent language bullshit. Joe Shea,
my editor, does not want it in his newspaper, and I respect that position.
He might even be almost as upset about publishing this as I a about writing
it. I do use salty language in my writing, but sparingly, only as a big
hammer. Use the fucking shit too fucking much and it loses its fucking
impact -- see what I mean? Fiction follows different rules, and if you
confine your fiction writing to how the swell people want to see themselves
using language, you not only preclude literary depiction of most people but
you are probably false to the people you purport to depict.
Do you remember how real language used by real people got on the air
and in the newspapers? Richard Nixon, while he was president, speaking in
the White House about official matters. A law professor and a nominee for
Supreme Court Justice arguing about pubic hairs and porno movies during
Senate hearings. Are these matters now too indecent for the Internet? How
much cleansing will be required of the online news services? Answer:
Enough cleansing to meet the standard of what is appropriate for a child in
the most restrictive federal judicial district.
This is bullshit -- unconstitutional bullshit and also bad policy
bullshit. To violate your ban on indecency, I have been forced to use and
overuse so-called indecent language. But if I called you a bunch of goddam
motherfucking cocksucking cunt-eating blue-balled bastards with the morals
of muggers and the intelligence of pond scum, that would be nothing compared
to this indictment, to wit: you have sold the First Amendment, your
birthright and that of your children. The Founders turn in their graves.
You have spit on the grave of every warrior who fought under the Stars and
And what mess of pottage have you acquired in exchange for the
rights of a free people? Have you cleansed the Internet of even the rawest
pornography? No, because it is a worldwide system. You have, however,
handed the government a powerful new tool to harass its critics: a
prosecution for indecent commentary in any district in the country.
Have you protected one child from reading dirty words? Probably
not, if you understand what the economists call "substitution" -- but you
have leveled the standards of political debate to a point where a history
buff would not dare to upload some of the Federalist v. Anti-Federalist
election rhetoric to a Website.
Since the lobby reporting requirements were not law when the
censorship discussion was happening, I hope you got some substantial reward
for what you gave up. Thirty pieces of silver doesn't go far these days.
(Steve Russell, retired after 16 years as a trial judge in Texas,
is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of
Texas at San Antonio.)
This article may be reproduced free forever.
© 1996 Peter Langston