Science/Tech

Annoying Rule

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The Communications Decency Act lives. Last June, in Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court overturned the law's ban on "indecent" electronic communication that might be viewed by minors. But that case did not address a provision making it a felony to transmit "indecent" material "with intent to annoy…another person."

Annoy.com seems designed to test that prohibition--because it was. ApolloMedia, the San Francisco Web site producer that maintains this "meeting place for the uninhibited," was already working on its own political commentary site when Congress passed the CDA in February 1996. But "the law certainly had an impact on the tone and direction it took," says ApolloMedia President Clinton D. Fein.

In annoy.com's "heckle" section, you can read a rant about, say, censorship or marriage, then fill out an anonymous, Mad Libs-style e-mail message to someone mentioned in the piece. ("Dear Phyllis Schlafly…") Click over to "censure," and you can send rude electronic postcards to politicians such as Newt Gingrich, Dianne Feinstein, Jesse Helms, and Janet Reno. The site also features ad parodies, press criticism, a weekly column mocking the comments of public figures, and a message board where visitors can slug it out with each other.

"We deliberately explore the limits of what is acceptable," says Fein. That's a nice way of putting it. Annoy.com revels in vulgarity, including scatological references, pictures of genitals, and George Carlin's "seven dirty words." Which would seem to put it somewhere in the vicinity of that mysterious territory known as indecency. No one really knows where that is, of course--which is one reason the Supreme Court decided the CDA's child protection provision ran afoul of the First Amendment. ApolloMedia argues that, in light of that decision, the CDA's ban on annoying indecency, which applies to communication between adults, is unconstitutional on its face.

The company's lawsuit, filed in January, was put on hold pending the outcome in Reno v. ACLU. Now it is proceeding. A hearing before a special three-judge panel in San Francisco was scheduled for October. Details about the case are available at (where else?) www.annoy.com.