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News and Insights

First Amendment Rights and the Internet

August 1995

In our January 1995 issue we described the dismissal of wire fraud charges in Boston against an MIT student who had made commercial software available for free on an Internet computer site. Now, in yet another embarrassing defeat for federal prosecutors and the FBI, a federal judge in Michigan has dismissed charges against Jake Baker, a University of Michigan student who had written a sexually violent story that he published on the Internet. The story involved a university classmate, and by all accounts appeared to have been tasteless and ill-considered. Despite the fact that Baker had never contacted the classmate, had no history of violence, and that a psychological evaluation showed that he was non-violent, Baker was denied bond and imprisoned for 29 days, a fact the judge described as “disturbing.” The government justified the imprisonment as preventing “Jake Baker and other like-minded individuals from acting on their violent impulses and desires.” The judge who dismissed the case described this rationale for the imprisonment as “farfetched.”

The government then dropped its case based on the “story” and re-indicted Baker based on sexually explicit e-mail messages Baker had sent to an individual in Canada. The court dismissed this case, finding that the content of the messages violated no law and was protected by the First Amendment. After noting that the government’s “enthusiastic beginning petered out to a salvage effort once it recognized that the (original story) . . . was only a rather savage and tasteless piece of fiction,” the judge wondered “why the government became involved in this matter in the first place.” The judge’s final words were to observe that the government seemed to have forgotten that freedom of speech received the same protection on the Internet that it received in other forms of communications media: cold comfort to Baker after the imprisonment, expense and humiliation he suffered at the hands of over-zealous prosecutors.