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Several Puritanical alarmists sitting on the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission argued during a meeting Tuesday that the US government should forcibly defend our tender sprouts from on-line filth by imprisoning the purveyors of electronic obscenity.

"One well-placed prosecution could send a message to the providers of this material that it's not acceptable," Commissioner and former Gary Hart squeeze turned anti-porn crusader Donna Rice Hughes suggested.

Not acceptable to whom, we wonder. At least one pernickety gaggle of irresponsible, child-hating troublemakers known as the US Supreme Court would beg to differ, as it did when it struck down COPA's predecessor, the Communications Decency Act, in 1997. There the issue was the audacious way the US Bill of Rights prohibits reducing adult discourse and dialogue to a level appropriate for children.

Then there was the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which in June let stand a lower court ruling that the COPA is so broad it could affect virtually any Web site, and require only that some prosecutor somewhere find some bit of content potentially "harmful to minors," which is the COPA's eminently low and cheaply emotional standard.

Former model Rice Hughes has apparently seen the light and accepted Jesus Christ as her Personal Saviour since her scandalous overnight liaison with the then married former Colorado Senator, which scuppered his bid for the presidency in 1987.

She has since fully cast out the demons by writing a book, Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, which advocates a "more aggressive enforcement of cyber-crime laws," and urges citizens to "Remember, public opinion drives public policy and law enforcement!" A Web site touting it has been, em, erected here.

Despite all the Puritanical, Massachusetts Bay Colony rhetoric, several of the more level-headed Commissioners believe that a massive DoJ purge, carried out by abusing federal obscenity laws, is a poor tactic. The US courts tend to be a bit funny about the First Amendment, and even if one should sell out to the Guardians of Childhood Innocence, the appellate process will almost certainly overturn it, converting the crusade into a vast waste of government money --always unpopular with John Q -- and yet another civil liberties fiasco for the Clinton Administration.

Far better to increase awareness and education regarding on-line dangers for tots, and make more and better software tools available to parents anxious about Junior's forays into cyberspace.

"Education...gets more bang for the buck, and this is a bang-for-the-buck issue," Commission Chairman and Network Solutions Executive Advisor Donald Telage said quite rationally.

There will be one more public hearing, at AOL Headquarters in northern Virginia, on 4 and 5 October. The Commission's final report to Congress is due 21 October. ®

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