Open Debate in the Openness Debate

It's been centuries since Luther nailed his theses to a church door, but the Internet is reintroducing theological debate to the public square.

Not long after he began his pastorate in Amsterdam in 1587, Jacob Arminius was asked to refute a pamphlet attacking the doctrine of predestination. Arminius read the document, but instead of producing the expected scathing reply, he found himself drawn to the pamphleteer's position.

John Milton, an avid pamphleteer himself, lamented 57 years later that "the acute and distinct Arminius was perverted merely by the perusing of a nameless discourse written at Delft, which at first he took in hand to confute." Yet when the British Parliament sought to censor printing, Milton argued passionately that ideas—even heretical ones—needed to be exchanged.

"That infection which is from books of controversy in religion is more doubtful and dangerous to the learned than to the ignorant," Milton wrote in his 1644 tract Areopagitica, "and yet those books must be permitted untouched by the licenser."

The advent of fast, cheap printing technologies around the time of the Reformation transformed theological discourse. But ideas had always found ways to spill out of narrow, approved channels—and they still do.

In the first major Supreme Court decision related to the Internet, Reno v. aclu in 1997, justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that, "Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders [listservs], and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer."

Since that decision, scholars have explored the effects of the Internet on commerce, politics, and numerous First Amendment concerns. But how does the Internet ...

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