Letters from our readers.
Aug. 15 1996 3:30 AM

(posted Wednesday, Aug. 14)


Click here to see letters to our tech guy. You can send any technical questions to slatetech@msn.com, and all other mail to slate@msn.com.

Foul Ball

I still puzzle over stadium economics ("Diamonds in the Rough," by John Pastier). If stadiums are such a good business deal, why aren't they readily funded by private enterprise without major municipal support? The funds are out there and available when companies, banks, and venture capitalists need a few billion to buy up some competitor. My suspicion is that the absence of private capital proves that stadiums are not a good deal except for the select few on the inside who are subsidized by other people's money.

--Jim Cerny


No Rain, No Gain

One of John Pastier's assertions ("Diamonds in the Rough") leaves me perplexed. He states that Seattle "has the driest weather in MLB outside California." Is this the same Seattle I know? Is this the same Seattle described in a past issue of Newsweek, which featured SLATE's editor on the cover in a rain slicker? Have I missed something?

--Kent Wosepka

Sucker Pitches


Your story on new ball parks ("Diamonds in the Rough," by John Pastier) failed to mention their blatant commercialism in the form of billboards and other intrusive enticements to buy products totally unrelated to the game. Improvements in architecture, regaining intimate space and scale and all the rest, won't disguise the ugliness of advertising the local bank, Chevy dealer, and chain retailer as a backdrop for baseball.

--John Miller

Creaming DeMuth

I read last week's "Committee of Correspondence: Advice for Dole," with some interest and not a little amazement. Chris DeMuth's contribution is an outstanding illustration of the ideological dead weight carried by Bob Dole's campaign so far. The stable of think-tank hobby horses being promoted (school choice, abortion, and missile defenses) is as bloated as the government DeMuth decries. Borrowing from DeMuth, I ask, "Is Dole any less constrained than Bill Clinton 'by powerful constituency groups within the [Republican] Party'?" So far, the answer is an unqualified "Yes!" These inside-the-Beltway issues and their small, but vocal, constituencies make this election Bill Clinton's to lose.


--Bob Bammerlin

Click Here to Snooze

Over the past few weeks the "Committee of Correspondence" has covered several topics. Each has been boring. The root of the difficulty is most probably the format rather than the discussants.

But the result is becoming predictable.


You have invented a piece of writing that is created from conversation. This guarantees the outcome will be tiresome and seemingly self-indulgent. And hard to read--impossible to read. I am interested in all the topics discussed so far, yet have been unable to read through more than a third of any offering.

I applaud your willingness to experiment, and yes, all well-designed experiments are successful. Please declare this experiment completed and move on.

--Ned Fagan

Left Out

Herbert Stein is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute ("Committee of Correspondence: Advice for Dole"), Robert Bartley is editor and vice president of the Wall Street Journal, Christopher DeMuth is president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Frank Keating is the Republican governor of Oklahoma, and Mary Matalin was the deputy campaign manager for the Bush/Quayle '92 ticket.

Maybe fairness isn't an aim of your electro-rag, but how about an occasional committee member who stands to the left of Atilla the Helms?

--Dick Paddock

Pedestrian Crossing

I have been very disappointed by what I've seen of SLATE thus far. The economics articles, while a good idea, have proven fairly trivial and even pedestrian. Steven E. Landsburg's comments on the national debt ("Kwitcherbellyachin'") were neither enlightening nor humorous, leading me to wonder why you bothered running the piece.

SLATE clearly seems to have already taken a political slant to the right. Its content is proof enough. Clinton's affiliation with a labor leader is hardly surprising ("The Clintons and the Mob," by Jodie T. Allen), even less so to one who supported his position on NAFTA. What is surprising is the temerity of running an article titled "The Clintons and the Mob" when the "mobster" in question has neither been convicted of nor indicted for racketeering. Indeed, the author only establishes a connection between Coia and the first family; evidence of organized criminal activities was weakly presented. This smacks of irresponsible journalism.

In another article, "The Warlords of Democracy," by Paul Goble, you offer a link to a Ronald Reagan speech, at the end of which is a command to "go back." Dutifully following instructions, I find myself in a GOP Web site endowed with the collected wisdom of such luminaries as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh.

I understand that this publication is still developing. I certainly hope it develops into a well-balanced, responsible journal, but that is not the direction I perceive.

--Craig Schultz

War and Remembrance

Paul Goble is not the first person to discover that even the best forms of government are prone to engage in war ("Warlords of Democracy"). Nor is his analysis more penetrating than that of others who have made the same discovery. Goble's suffers by comparison to K.N. Waltz's in his 1959 book, Man, the State, and War. Nevertheless, Goble's point is one that bears repeating, if only because it seems to be so easily forgotten.

--Rendell Davis

C+ for Democracy

It's no surprise that democracy isn't perfect ("Warlords of Democracy," by Paul Goble). It is essentially an averaging of the people, and like any average, it falls somewhere between the best and the worst. The decisions a democracy arrives at won't be as good as those the best people in the country would have made, but neither will they be as bad as what the worst would have done. The second part is the most important side of the equation.

A benevolent dictatorship would be the best form of government, except for one distressing fact. Nobody's figured out how to make sure the dictator will actually be benevolent before giving him the reins of power. And you generally can't trade them in later without a whole lot of bloodshed.

--John Hawkins

Freedom Fighters

I was a bit surprised by Paul Goble's position in his article titled "Warlords of Democracy." The term "peaceful democracy" is almost a contradiction in terms. The justification of democracy is that it provides the greatest level of freedom to its citizens. There is an old saying, "You can have peace or you can have freedom. But never count on having both at the same time." There will always be threats to democracy and freedom from people who want more power, land, etc., and who are willing to use force to achieve their goals.

Democracies have always preferred peace to war. War is expensive and wasteful in terms of human life as well as economics. If the alternative is to lose our freedom, then we must be warlike to preserve it.

--Joseph Biener

Right In

I'm a far right, reactionary, radical, mean-spirited, child-starving, Limbaugh-loving ditto-head Republican (who for years thought Goldwater was a Commie, and was proved right). I'm also a born-again Christian and I'm studying apologetics, along with Hawking and other "Black Hole" evolutionists. Thank God I'm a Bluegrass picker too, so I can take my banjo and go into another world when need be.

Watching Michael Kinsley on Crossfire used to make me see red. But I really do try to look at all sides, and SLATE is a great help. You have a reader in me.

--Dean A. Bahr

Feeling Their Pain

Stephen Chapman ("What's Wrong With 'Victims' Rights' ") expresses some practical concerns regarding the Victims' Rights Amendment. However, there is great danger in the amendment's subtext.

There are several justifications for taking a convicted criminal's freedom away. The most neglected rationale, but the one closest to our spiritual traditions, is rehabilitation. Other legitimate objectives include removing predators from the general population and setting an example to deter potential criminals. The impulse animating the Victims' Rights Amendment, however, is different. It seeks to assuage the pain of victims by allowing them to participate in the suffering of those who hurt them.

This cannot be called wrong. How can one tell parents that they should not want to see the person who raped and killed their child punished? Nevertheless, it is not a principle that should be honored with a place in the Constitution. It does not consider the greater good of broad society; the amendment is a revenge wish, pure and simple.

The real problem with the Victims' Rights Amendment is that it undermines the moral authority of justice.

--William Gadea

Kill and Ask Questions Later

Reading Robert Wright's piece about the prospects for human cooperation ("Interdependence Day"), I wonder how he might incorporate fear into the theory of strategic bonding. It seems to me that the instinct for survival plays as much a role in the trust or distrust among the races as genetics. I've always felt that a chief cause of racial strife is that on a primal, instinctive level, we distrust something new or different from what we know. If we encounter this new, different animal when we are alone, our instinct tells us to run away. If we outnumber this alien being, our instinct tells us to kill it and ask questions later (or, at the very least, discriminate against it and keep it in a manageable place). Only by understanding the alien being, and feeling unthreatened by its presence, will the instinct to control it be neutralized.

--Dale Kutzera

Bad Judgment Call

I was surprised by "The Bull Street Journal." My reaction while reading it was to be embarrassed for SLATE, because the whole feature smells like a juvenile attempt to slam a competitor via the most unprofessional means. The kind of SLATE I was coming to enjoy reading was one that would rip the Wall Street Journal apart using facts, ideas, and finely honed reasoning. There is no place in that kind of SLATE for this kind of high-school parody of a competing publication.

SLATE is still new, so perhaps this is the kind of thing that can be written off as inexperience.

I'll keep reading, but no longer will I assume that SLATE will always exercise good (or even average) editorial judgment in its selection of features.

--Terry O'Neill

Save Room for Dessert

I was rather annoyed to find that both the theater and art reviews in this week's SLATE ("Quel Drag!" by Larissa MacFarquhar, "New York State of Mind," by Louis Menand") cover minor events in Manhattan. I hope this isn't a sign that SLATE will follow the lead of many of its print counterparts by licking every crumb from New York's cultural plate while completely ignoring major events that occur elsewhere.

--Robert Lauriston

Facts and Filters

Professor Eugene Volokh may have created more confusion than he dispelled in SLATE ("Speech and Spillover"). Not only does Volokh blur the constitutional issues raised by legislation like the Communications Decency Act, but he also misinforms readers about the function and effectiveness of software-content filters--facts that are central to understanding the public debate about regulating content on the Net.

There are many problems with Volokh's First Amendment discussion, but most seem to follow from two basic errors. First, Volokh fails to note that the Supreme Court has conditioned the scope of the government's authority to broadly regulate constitutionally protected content (such as nonobscene sexual content) on the specific character of the medium distributing that content. At the risk of oversimplifying, we may say that the court has allowed the government greater authority to regulate "indecent" content either when broadcast (e.g., radio broadcasting in the Pacifica case) or delivered in a manner indistinguishable in character--to the audience, at least--from broadcasting (e.g., cable television in this year's Denver Consortium case).

Second, Volokh conflates three distinct (if overlapping) categories of content: "indecent," "sexually explicit," and (by implication) "pornographic." In doing so, he reinforces a common confusion about the Communications Decency Act--namely, that its reach was limited only to pornographic material. But as the judges in ACLU vs. Reno noted, the terms of the CDA criminalized a far broader range of speech--speech that is "indecent" or "patently offensive"--much of which is not "sexually explicit" as those words are normally understood. (Not all speech that's indecent or patently offensive is about sex, Howard Stern notwithstanding.)

The judges also observed that the plaintiffs in ACLU vs. Reno (ranging from Microsoft and Wired magazine to organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the National Writers Union) were easily distinguishable from the commercial pornographers whose dial-a-porn services were at issue in Sable Communications vs. FCC (1989). That's why it's particularly troubling to see Volokh cite Sable, a case about regulating minors' access to commercial pornography, in support of a more general claim that government has broad power to regulate nonpornographic "indecent" or "sexually explicit" content in the interest of protecting children. (Justice White, writing for the court in Sable, does not go so far. Instead, he relies on two cases that, like Sable, involve pornography and minors. White never expressly states in Sable that the government has constitutional authority to regulate--regardless of the medium--the far broader category of speech called "indecency.")

These two basic legal errors give rise to other problems with Volokh's constitutional analysis. Most notably, he suggests compulsory labeling of online content without mentioning the First Amendment problem of "compelled speech" that clearly would arise, and without discussing whether such compulsory labeling would be constitutional if imposed on books and newspapers. (Medium-specific analysis suggests it wouldn't be, and factual record in ACLU vs. Reno seems to entail the same conclusion about compulsory labeling on the Internet.)

But perhaps the single most disturbing error in his article has to do with the facts, not the law. In order to support his thesis that technical solutions will never resolve what he sees as a perennial "spillover" problem, Volokh attempts to raise doubts about the effectiveness of selection/filtering software such as SurfWatch:

The SurfWatch solution is limited by the software designers' ability to keep up with the latest 'dirty' places. Dozens of Web sites are being added daily, and you never know what will get posted tomorrow even on existing sites or newsgroups. Some things will inevitably be missed.

The purely technological fix, then, is less restrictive than the CDA, but it's also less effective.

What Volokh implies here (that filters rely solely or primarily on a list of "dirty places") is wholly false--not just about SurfWatch, but about filtering software and filtering paradigms generally. We know of no product that operates as Volokh suggests SurfWatch does--while many such programs do include specific lists of objectionable sites, this is not the primary approach any of these programs rely on to filter content. This is true even though filtering paradigms may differ among products: SurfWatch uses multiple approaches, including keyword- and pattern-matching algorithms; the company uses its "blocked site" list as a supplement to its core filtering technologies. NewView's Specs for Kids program, in contrast, doesn't use a "blocking" strategy at all--instead it reviews and rates sites (147,000 as of this writing), and admits minors only to those pre-approved sites. SurfWatch's continuing success during a period in which the total number of Web sites has boomed undercuts Volokh's generalization about the effect of the boom on these filters' effectiveness. This makes sense--block the word "sex" in a Web address, and it doesn't matter if the number of Web addresses including the word "sex" has increased tenfold since last year. And it's difficult to see how the effectiveness of the Specs for Kids approach can be diminished by the boom, even in theory.

Volokh's analysis of filters, together with his mandatory-labeling suggestion, also shows a lack of awareness of the labeling infrastructure that software vendors and the rest of the network industry are increasingly accepting as a standard--the Platform for Internet Content Selection. PICS was developed by a cross-industry working group coordinated by the World Wide Web Consortium, and is described in the paper "PICS: Internet Access Controls Without Censorship," by Paul Resnick and James Miller. This paper (to appear in Communications of the ACM) as well as other material on PICS can be found on the Web.

PICS is a set of conventions that describe formats for labeling Internet content and methods for how labels are distributed. PICS does not dictate what the labels should say or how they should be used. To quote Resnick and Miller, PICS is "analogous to specifying where on a package a label should appear, and in what font it should be printed, without specifying what it should say."

The intent of this flexibility is to support a wide variety of labeling systems and selection methods. For instance, one might configure a Web browser to screen out material that carries certain labels. This is the system imagined by Volokh, but it is only one approach. As an alternative, one might make accessible only those Web pages that are labeled in a particular way, for example, Web pages that carry the "seal of approval" of various organizations. This second approach, functionally similar to that of Specs for Kids, would address Volokh's concern about "keeping up" with new Web sites.

And these are only the simplest applications; PICS was expressly designed to be an open-ended system that permits multiple labeling services and multiple ways of using labels; unlike the CDA, PICS can be used for purposes other than screening out sexual or offensive content. In creating a standard for interoperability, the PICS designers envisioned the growth of a competitive market in third-party rating services, where the pressures of competition will help assure that current and future labels are timely and accurate. They also envisioned a competitive market in selection software, leading to increasingly sophisticated techniques for using those labels. As Resnick and Miller write:

Around the world, governments are considering restrictions on on-line content. Since children differ, contexts of use differ, and values differ, blanket restrictions on distribution can never meet everyone's needs. Selection software can meet diverse needs, by blocking reception, and labels are the raw materials for implementing context-specific selection criteria. The availability of large quantities of labels will also lead to new sorting, searching, filtering, and organizing tools that help users surf the Internet more efficiently.

The free-market evolutionary approach may not be perfect, but it is counterintuitive to assume, as Volokh apparently does, that saddling the system with CDA-derived regulations could make it more effective or efficient. If anything, such a regulation is likely to have the opposite effect. Imposing a single, federally approved standard for the kinds of constitutionally protected content that government can banish from public forums in the name of protecting minors seems likelier to skew the market. It would diminish the ability parents now have to decide for themselves which solution is most effective. (And the marketplace of ideas wouldn't exactly be enhanced, either.)

Ironically, those who rely on either Volokh's constitutional "spillover" analysis or his assessment of software filters may feel compelled to craft laws that ensure we never escape from the "spillover" problem: laws that needlessly pit adults' First Amendment rights against the state's interest in protecting children. That would be a shame, since the technical solutions that Volokh dismisses carry the promise of avoiding his "spillover" problem altogether. Thanks to these inexpensive and highly adaptable tools, two important social interests--the protection of children and the preservation of First Amendment rights--need no longer be viewed as opponents in a zero sum game.

--Mike Godwinstaff counsel, Electronic Frontier Foundation

--Hal Abelsonprofessor of computer science and engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eugene Volokh replies:

Godwin and Abelson raise some interesting legal points. I stand by my legal analysis, which I believe is based on the most natural reading of the cases; I do not believe I am guilty of any "basic legal errors" that Godwin and Abelson ascribe to me. I recognize, though, that reasonable minds can differ on the questions involved here, much as they generally can with regard to most genuinely contested legal questions.

My brief responses to their points:

1. As I mentioned in my original article, it's true that one of the key cases--Pacifica--contained language that limited it to the broadcasting medium. But it seems to me that Sable Communications and the relevant part (Part III) of Denver Consortium allow the government to restrict speech in other media, so long as the restriction is the least restrictive means of shielding children from improper material. The Internet would, I think, be no exception.

2. My article expressly pointed out that the CDA's ban on indecency does indeed apply to more than just pornography. This is one of the things that troubles me about the CDA.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court's decision in Denver Consortium seems to me to firmly stand for the proposition that the government has a compelling interest in shielding children from "indecent" speech: Speech that depicts or describes "sexual or excretory activities or organs" in "patently offensive terms," whether the speech is pornographic or not.

3. The court's decisions seem to me to be equally applicable to commercial distributors of indecency and noncommercial ones. Perhaps the court can ultimately be persuaded to draw a distinction between the two; it would, I think, be an uphill battle, but perhaps a winnable one, and I wish free-speech hawks all the best on it. I should note, though, that the recent federal court decision in Shea vs. Reno (released after Godwin and Abelson's letter was written) rejected such a distinction--whether rightly or wrongly--in the closely related context of a vagueness analysis.

4. Whether one looks at a rating requirement as a speech compulsion (you must self-rate any indecent speech) or as a speech restriction (you may not say certain things unless you self-rate them), a rating requirement is indeed a burden on speech; I don't believe I suggested the contrary. But such a burden might still be upheld if it's the least restrictive means of shielding children. I think one can make a considerably stronger case on this score for the constitutionality of the rating requirement than of the CDA itself. As I mentioned in my original article, I think the CDA would probably be struck down, but my guess is that some form of self-rating requirement would probably be upheld.

5. As to the factual points Godwin and Abelson raise, I refer the reader to my response to the letter from Jay Friedland of SurfWatch. In that response, I agree that my discussion of what SurfWatch does was an oversimplification--for which I apologize--but explain why I believe it doesn't appreciably affect the legal analysis: The other technological alternatives, in my view, will not constitute the "less restrictive alternatives" needed to make the CDA unconstitutional. (The earlier response does not discuss in detail the PICS model, but I believe that the points it raises are generally applicable to PICS.)

6. Finally, as a policy matter, I am no fan of the CDA, or even of a rating requirement. My article focused on whether the CDA was constitutional, not on whether it was wise. Given the choice, I'd much rather stick with private choice of privately administered screening mechanisms.

The heart of my argument, though, is that none of these alternative mechanisms "carr[ies] the promise of avoiding [the] spillover problem altogether" (in Godwin's and Abelson's words). They doubtless decrease the problem. As I said in the article, they may decrease it enough to make the CDA unconstitutional: "The best guess seems to be that the marginal benefit of the CDA over the technological alternatives is small enough, and the burden that the law creates is large enough, that the CDA will be overturned."

But it seems to me that the spillover will always be there, and the court will always have to make the same "hard choice: sacrifice some shielding of children in order to protect grownups, or sacrifice some access by grownups in order to shield children." Private screening mechanisms may make the choice somewhat easier; but I'm not persuaded that they can eliminate it entirely.

But We Got a Good Price

Microsoft in the content business? Does Bill Gates hope to buy out the top guns in the journalism field, or is he trying to do something new here.

I think the motto that comes to mind is, "If you can't beat them, buy them." Congratulations, sellouts. You have done nothing to advance the status quo. You had the opportunity to create something unique, but SLATE is the same old stuff.

Your crime is going for market share, rather than creating a new market. This is not strange, coming from Microsoft. If only you had the slightest notion of how demented the idea of Microsoft pushing the Internet is. Buy an upgrade for your head, before it's too late!

--John Williams


As a silicon-enhanced knowledge serf suffering from chronic time-deficit disorder, I just don't seem to find enough bandwidth in a day to properly digest enlightened journalism, much less to enjoy a little poetry. But as I slavishly grind away at the keyboard coding my assigned arcana, I often observe my neuronic (or is it neurotic?) operating system engaged in symmetric multitasking.

Suppose all of SLATE's articles featured the authors reading their visionary musings into digital audio format. One convenience of a paper magazine that will take the digital variety a while to match is portability. However the paper variety will never be able to read itself to the subscriber.

Fast-forwarding a bit to see where this might lead, presume for a moment that the average automobile will one day be equipped with a cellular-linked PC brain box (global positioning system included, no extra charge). The proposed "HearSLATE" could then offer discriminating commuters and professional drivers some intellectual refuge from the endless tirade of mindless drivel currently broadcast by the common carriers.

In blunt summary (I'm running out of time), perhaps asking us (the unwashed masses) to shell out 20 bucks a year for the privilege of staring longer at this stinkin' monitor for an hour or two more a week, when we'd rather bail outta this rotten sweatshop before the sun goes down, won't be as appealing an expenditure for our meager discretionary income as say, three pitchers of beer or a couple of baseball game tickets. There's more free stuff available online to fill up the time when the boss isn't around than the proxy-censor will ever let us read.

Give us some content-rich brainfood stereophonically fed through the audio ports while our lower cortex is busy arranging electrons on the screen. And so you have SLATE 's suggested revenue-enhancement for today, and as for tomorrow, see above--and let your imagination run wild.

--Brandon (Dilbert) Nichols