Million Geek March ... An INTERNET PROTEST

AOL Banned Poetry Dispute

The dispute is escalating and intensifying, as it is about to go public.

1. The first document is the Motley Focus Locus editors' letter explaining the issue to selected e-zine editors and publishers last Sunday. Some of you received this,some of you didn't.

2. The second is the contact letter from the CCA member to the Motley Focus that started our involvement. We ourselves are not members of CCA. WE were impressed enough by this letter to inquire further then become involved. It's an appeal to us but really to e-zine editors generally that happed to come to us.

3. The third document is the Creative Coalition on AOL's Press Release for Tues., Jan. 15.

(4) The last piece we have included is Motley Focus Locus' letter to civil liberties attorneys and organizations we have been in contact with, and our Motley argument in support of free speech even on a private service such as AOL. And a statement of our position.

The best place to follow the dispute and get a sense of what happened if you are hearing about if for the first time (or want the latest developments) are the

"Free Expression and AOL" and "Archive of Poetry Banned by AOL" in the "Letters" section of AfterNoon Magazine:
Poetry Archives
(a.) "Free Expression and AOL includes the chain of correspondence between Motley Focus and CCA and the responses of some editors we have contacted.
(b.) The "Archive of Poetry Banned by AOL" has extensive logs of banned poems & TOS letters.
(c) a statement of AfterNoon's perspective on this growing dispute.

If you are not familiar with AOL procedures, it'll take a while to understand the jargon even for the net savvy, but wade directly in and it becomes clear. It is a surrealistic and curious world that AOL has created for its poets. Something can be gained of the real sense and feeling of the dispute by reading through it, rather just "hearing" that AOL is banning poems.

The CCA seems to us to have grown to about fifty poets. Judging from the latest letters we have received, AOL appears determined to throw the ring leaders off their service. The CCA poets, feeling that AOL is where they have met and established a sort of cybercommunity of poets, are refusing to submit to AOL's new rules or to leave quietly. This may be a tempest in a teapot, but we believe it is also something unique and interesting -- the first organized cyberspace rebellion against a huge provider's control of the content of speech appearing on their service. I'm sure that CCA members would appreciate any support you'd be willing to give them.

Thanks for taking the time with this
Stephen Williamson
William Timberman
Motley Focus Locus
AfterNoon Magazine
Sun Jan 7- Mon- Jan 8

Dear E-zine Editor,

I received the following letter on Friday from a writer who had seen our ad for Motley Focus Locus and AfterNoon Magazine in "Poets and Writers," and had submitted poetry to us, which we had turned down.

It's an account of an expanding attempt by AOL to tighten control over a poets' group there, and it charges that an extreme degree of censorship has developed recently -- that they've even removed a poem because it included the word "breast."

We have no involvement in this writers' group and like many people on the Net, we think that trying to do a poets' group on AOL will inevitably lead to problems. I keep an address on AOL for submissions purposes, and as an E-mail backup when my service provider is down, but its "Terms of Service" make publishing there out of the question for us.

Nevertheless, this writer's anguish seems deeply felt and AOL's response to it completely inadequate.

We wrote a number editors last month about forming an Association of Electronic Magazines, and here, arriving on our electronic doorstep, is correspondence which shows one more reason to seriously consider doing so.

This is not an issue of writing quality, but of freedom of expression. It's understandable that these writers (mostly new and less experienced, I suspect) don't want to be forced off AOL, where their group is visible and can attract new members freshly arriving on the Web. Here they've not only gotten support from one another, but have been able to accomplish something which we believe is important for all of us.

The long and the short of it is that we hate to see a few large corporations gain control over information, and restrict the freedom of expression of new arrivals to Internet.

The correspondence follows. I've edited it very slightly to avoid repetition, and in a couple of spots added in material left out when I chopped off some not-so-well-written responses while on line.

If these writers can produce an example of AOL's turning down a poem for including the word "breast," or even less extreme examples, then I think they have a case which they should take public. Even if they don't, the issue of intellectual freedom remains the same. AOL has stopped responding to my letters -- perhaps with good reason. Maybe a few letters from you would get them to consider starting up a dialog about this again.

Thanks for your consideration,

Stephen Williamson

Motley Focus Locus AfterNoon Magazine


Subj: CCA
Date: Thu, Jan 4, 1996 6:46 PM EDT
X-From: (Dwain Kitchel)


I saw your e-mail address in this months Poets&Writers and I thought I would contact you. My name is Dwain Kitchel and I am writting you about an AOL group of poets. If you are unaware there is a poetry section on AOL under "Writers"(go to word). I was on AOL for over a year, and must admit I came to enjoy the company of the poets there. Some are true writers! But in the last 3 months all this has changed, as the Exon bill has prodded Steve Case into a new round of censorship. Poetry has been pulled for no rhyme or reason, and posts with only one questionable word, breast, have been lifted under TOS rules. Now I would agree with the statement that as members we signed up for these rules but they have been changing without notice, and posts are pulled that don't really even contain vulgarity. My point to this message is that a group of poets have formed a group called CCA(Creative Coalition on AOL) to fight the powers that be. Our first goal is the creation of a child proof place to post poetry without concern for censorship. Such a place is the ACLU section on AOL, secondly to get some statement of exactly what is a TOSable post(sans the quasi "list" of bad words that changes daily and is never posted), and thirdly if possible, to send Steve Case back to Congress with the message "Free speech must be allowed on-line!"

Sir, I recognize you may be to busy to respond to this appeal, or even unwilling to do so. And by no means do I wish to "hound" you about it. I myself have given up my AOL account in protest so please do not misread my message. What I am asking is if you have an interest in this matter, please help us by joining free and without responsibility (class 4-non-active membership) CCA by writing to CCA , and add your name to the some hundred or so poets listed there already. We have tried the normal channels of writting Steve Case and THopeB (Writers Area Manager) without result and so we are going to try and mount a campaign to get free speech returned to poets on line. You are welcome to check out some of the arguments in WWWIII folder in Poets Corner, though you had better look fast as they are being pulled quickly as they don't really represent AOL's ideals.

For questions please contact as Isa is our president, or her paramor Astralan(Stan Crooks). I myself would be more than happy to respond to your question but you may now only reach me on the Web at

Again I thank you kindly for your time and consideration and any ideals pro or con would be greatly needed. I will also soon be checking out your web site, though sadly I have not been there yet. Your friend and fellow poet(perhaps a stretch) Dwain Kitchel.


Jordanne Holyoak, Media Directorend)
Richard R. Becker (702) 658-6816
Davids To Take On Goliath
Writers, Poets And Journalists To Take on AOL

Actions speak louder than words.

In a letter addressing its 4 million members, Steve Case, president and CEO of America Online (AOL), wrote, "Our strong belief is that we can accomplish the important goal of protecting children from inappropriate material without compromising privacy or free speech by empowering parents with a set of easy-to-use technologies and tools that allow parents to choose the content that their children can access."

At the same time, AOL released new Terms of Service (TOS) and Rules of the Road (ROR) for members to abide by or lose their accounts.

"To date, I have never seen more restrictive TOS guidelines on AOL," says Holyoak, spokesperson for the Creative Coalition on AOL. "AOL's new TOS guidelines completely compromise free speech."

The Creative Coalition on AOL (CCA) was founded by a little more than a dozen poets and writers that became concerned about AOL policies when several of their posted poems were removed from the boards and AOL representatives issued TOS violation warnings. Too many TOS warnings or violations in an unspecified area of time, or even one time in some cases, can cause a subscriber to be barred from AOL's service.

"Our immediate reaction was to test what words AOL disagreed with," says Holyoak. "Several of us posted poems we knew would be 'TOSed,' but there were also many well-structured poems with redeeming qualities."

In order to explore exactly what was permissible art on-line, one of the writers who became interested in the poets' complaint, posted a Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary definition that AOL provides in its Reference area. The posting earned the writer a TOS warning and the post was removed from the area these artists had created to explore free speech on AOL, aptly titled WWIII. Under the profane and vulgar provisions of AOL, CCA says even classic literature cannot be quoted without fear of TOS violations. And, new TOS and ROR guidelines have expanded those provisions to encompass anything that AOL, or any member of their service, does not agree with.

Since the first WWIII folder was created, members of AOL have filled the folder with comments (which was only allowed 450 posts at one point) three times over. Combined, the amount of posts are roughly equivalent to 3 novel-sized manuscripts. Recently, in perhaps an unprecedented move, the group decided to become organized and founded the CCA on the very server censoring them.

"We tried individually writing Steve Case and other AOL representatives on-line, but largely, AOL ignored us. That's when we knew we had to become organized," explains Holyoak. "We decided to increase our membership, educate people about the importance of free speech, and try to convince AOL to provide a Free Speech area for literary pursuits. All we're really asking is to be able to speak without the fear of being silenced."

CCA feels that private industries that promote themselves as a community should regard free speech with the same vigor as the Constitution. Otherwise, Holyoak says, attacks on individuals who are different will run wild over the Internet under the guise of private industry rights.

"Perhaps it already is," she said, citing a recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) release that reads: "It appears that AOL's arbitrary standards may be a little homophobic. While "Wet and Wild" was an unacceptable title in a gay video catalog, AOL ran an ad in Downtown AOL for Affinity Teleproductions, Inc. that read: "Now you can join exotic Anna Nicole Smith on her sensuous Edenquest adventure in her exclusive photo portfolio. . . . Anna Nicole Smith "The Collectors Set" features ten eye opening Edenquest photographs in vivid color . . . . It's all Anna Nicole Smith wet and wild drenched in sun and powder sugar sand. "With Love, Anna Nicole" is your personal trip to paradise with the world's most exciting woman in her most provocative photos ever." Other words banned by AOL (that AOL accepted payment for and allowed to run for 4 weeks of its one year contract) in a gay video ad included: "pleasure," "black," "hard," "boys," "jock," "Rican," "sex," "stud," "straight," "young.""

Holyoak also says, "AOL constantly solicits its members to participate in debates and then censors those views or words that they don't agree with. Additionally, AOL continually contradicts itself by advertising "Cybersex" to people of all ages, but then claims to have "family values" in regard to a poem about oppression."

Currently, officers of CCA are appealing to other groups such as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF) to assist their cause, saying that CCA hopes they're as aggressive about free speech as they appear to be. Additionally, the group is studying court rulings on free speech to build what will be an undeniable case that AOL cannot ignore. The goal in this is not to bring class action against AOL, but that their research will glean some information that will open AOL's eyes or least the eyes of CCA's critics.

"We're continually pressured to give up and resign our AOL accounts by some on-line members," says Holyoak. "But we feel we have a right to request customer service and refuse to 'sit at the back of the bus' because we have different views than AOL."

Although CCA has yet to create a physical address (as it was formed on-line), its officers welcome supporters who do not subscribe to AOL by sending Email to "" Additionally, there is no membership fee to join this organization and it does not accept monetary donations.


Latest developments:

What has happened is this:

The poets have gone to other "folders" to complain of their treatment by AOL. Often their work has been pulled, or simply disappeared, or they have been TOSed for it. Folders of poems have just vanished.

About this latest TOS (it's us at the Motley Focus a while to understand all this; it's a subculture that we're not part of.):

A leader of the CCA, Stan Crooks, has complained about AOL in another "folder." Someone named Ronald has denounced him. He has replied in kind and AOL's THopeB has TOSed him for flaming the other person!

It's clear bias. Please look at the exchange. I know it's a little hard to follow. AOL is not applying their own rules objectively; they are using them in an apparent attempt to build TOS files on individuals whom they want thrown off the service, the ringleaders of the AOL Poets' rebellion.

Second: Take a look the number of people CCA is forwarding the info to. This does not include e-zine editors like AfterNoon, or those we talk to.

I'd submit that this is the first cyber-space rebellion. It may seem a tempest in the teapot, but all the same, it really is a major event, a first. They have actually organized and rebelled -- it's amazing.

Here's how an editor, Foster Johnson, who is most hostile to CCA, puts it in a letter to me:

The information provided by AOL is AOL's to do with what they please. AOL is not a public access cable channel. If you believe that we are attempting to censor and to control information, find another information provider. Get on the real Internet and publish what ever you want [NOTE: SoCoOL Bob - I agree with this idea], by subscribing to a service provider, not an on-line service. Either play by AOLs rules or avoid using them, complaining will do nothing and even if you get a thousand editors to flood their customer service e-mail mailbox, AOL want give a "dam*"!

Most of us understand what Foster is saying here, and the legal position which underlies it: AOL is a private company. People sign on, and if they don't like the service they should go somewhere else. That's the narrow logic.

So why didn't the members of CCA all just quit? Why did all these poets stay and fight? What is the logic of their position, the logic that all of us logical people are missing? I do think that this point is important. Is it really as simple as "they just all made a mistake -- they don't understand the way things are."? Will they really, once they're set right on this point, just pick up and go somewhere else?

I think that there is another explanation, and that it goes back to my earlier argument about AOL creating a public "space." For me personally, AOL was like the telephone company; I made my calls there. It never occurred to me to visit the writers area.

These individuals were invited by AOL's advertising to set up their own "communities of interest." They accepted the invitation, and over time, formed their own cyber-community. They weren't just passing through -- they "lived" there. It became for these poets a home away from home, where they and their friends met and exchanged their work, argued and discussed things. What AOL did was to provide a series of public spaces (under their control), and people came and built themselves a community. But under political pressures, AOL took an increasingly negative interest in what they were saying, and began removing their work. That's what brought on the rebellion. I'd just ask you to look at how strong and cohesive CCA is, even though its members are scattered all over the country, and the organization has no physical address.

We must listen. It was in certain folders of AOL, in a certain region of cyberspace, that their community formed. They don't want to move somewhere else; communities seldom do, except in the worst of circumstances.

So they appear to some irrational, staying where they are and fighting this huge corporation when they can go somewhere else -- if they can learn how. I'm relatively new to net myself, unlike my partner on the Motley Focus, so I have some sympathy with CCA's technical reluctance to move. They are fighting back like a community under attack, and I believe that we should accept them as such; a community.

It's as though a more traditional community with an established identity and rights had been hit by some malevolent enclosure act; that's the way AOL's behavior has been experienced by the individuals involved. And AOL's TOS'es are not derived from the needs of the community that they recruited, not from internal problems (flaming back and forth, for example), but from political pressure external to the community which has become an inconvenience for AOL. It's not a matter of poets or other members of AOL complaining to AOL that they want more rules.

What strikes me is the cohesiveness of the CCA, given the amazing circumstances of this whole affair, and also their moderation (they seem to have tried every reasonable avenue and only now are going public.) And what they have asked for from AOL is really reasonable. AOL would probably have accommodated them, had it not been for the external political pressure.

The Motley Focus Locus will continue to archive documentation of this dispute on AfterNoon Magazine as we receive it. It is getting hard for us to keep up with it all, but CCA will go public on Jan. 15, and they may then be able to attract additional support and resources to help them.

The "Free Expression and AOL" exchange of letters, and the "AOL Banned Poems Archive" is located at

To restate our argument, which we believe reflects a new appreciation of the legality of AOL's "Terms of Service," and a broader understanding of what has occurred between AOL and the CCA poets follows. Skip it if you've read it before.


AfterNoon's Position on Freedom of Expression and Online Services

Although large online services like AOL are private organizations, their size and structure is such that they have created a "public" space -- virtual in this case, not physical. In a public place -- an airport, the public space in the private IBM building in Manhattan -- free speech is protected by the First Amendment. What we need is a new legal definition of what constitutes public and private space.

Lawyers don't yet see a legal basis to a challenge to censorship on online services because such services are private enterprises. But what is happening in the society at large is an increasing intrusion of private space into public space -- the gated communities, the private guards, the malls and the rest. As a result, there is a net loss of the physical, psychological and electronic areas available to free speech, and consequently a threat to public life itself. If you sell off the Commons -- where free speech takes place -- then you have decreased effective access to free speech, even though the Bill of Rights still theoretically protects it. You can still say whatever you want -- there is just no place to say it where anyone else can hear you. So it is with cyberspace (we submit that it is no accident that the word "cyberspace" has come into common parlance to describe transactions on the Internet and the large online services); you cannot decrease the overall "availability area" without a corresponding erosion of free speech.

In AfterNoon's opinion, cyberspace should be considered public space -- you may need the services of a private company to gain access to it, but the company's control over its contents should be limited strictly to matters dictated by technical necessity, and their responsibility for its contents should be limited simply to seeing that what their clients say is transmitted or stored or displayed. The clients should be responsible for paying the company for its services, and for obeying the existing laws regarding libel, intellectual property, obscenity, etc.

Stephen Williamson
William Timberman
editors of AfterNoon