Blue Ribbon Campaign

Fighters for online free speech
Blue Ribbon Campaign


In 1996, the Blue Ribbon Campaign successfully protected the internet from harmful regulation and set the stage for future internet activism.
Blue Ribbon Campaign Overview ‧ read
You might have heard of the 2012 Internet Blackout against censorship, which was the biggest online protest in history. Millions of people and websites blocked their content and displayed protest messages to show what life would be like under the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills.

But that wasn’t the first time net users banded together to protect our online freedom of speech.

In February 1996, another U.S. law called the Communications Decency Act (CDA) threatened our online freedom. Immediately after the new law passed, the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign was formed to try to defeat it. A parallel campaign called the Great Web Blackout even staged—you guessed it—a blackout of web pages in protest.

Want to know what happened? Here’s a profile of the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign.

A threat to free speech

The CDA of 1996 was an attempt by U.S. Congress to regulate pornography on the internet. Its aim was to protect children from “patently offensive depictions of sexual or excretory activities.”

But because the language in the Act’s provisions was too vague, the CDA was too far-reaching. The Act’s definition of obscene material included “indecent speech,” a term which can be interpreted in many different ways. This meant that a huge range of information—on abortion or sexual health, for example—could have been outlawed under the CDA. And that had potential to seriously limit free speech online.

It was time to act.

Fighting back with blue ribbons

The resistance began just hours after the CDA was passed into law by U.S. President Bill Clinton on February 1, 1996.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) jointly filed a lawsuit claiming the CDA violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech.

The EFF, a donor-funded nonprofit that defends digital rights, also quickly began organizing a grassroots campaign called the Blue Ribbon Campaign. The campaign organizers asked supporters to “Display the Blue Ribbon to support the essential human right of free speech, a fundamental building block of free society, affirmed by the U.S. Bill of Rights in 1791 and by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.”

“Display the Blue Ribbon to support the essential human right of free speech.”
Blogs and websites all over the world displayed blue ribbons to demonstrate their support. Here’s what the simple GIF and PNG images looked like—the internet was a different place back then!
Animated banner from Blue Ribbon Site Banner from Blue Ribbon Site

Aims of the Blue Ribbon Campaign

The main aim of the Blue Ribbon Campaign was to spread awareness of threats to online free speech. This included threats besides the CDA, since the campaign continued to be popular into the early 2000s.

The campaign also used innovative strategies still used by digital rights activists today. The web code used to display the Blue Ribbon allowed the EFF to “replace the ‘usual’ Blue Ribbon icon with an ‘ALERT!’ version… during action alerts.” A similar method was used by the Internet Defense League in 2016.

The Blue Ribbon Campaign helps defeat the CDA

The anti-indecency parts of the Communications Decency Act 1996 were overturned on June 26, 1997. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU and EFF’s argument that the CDA “essentially bans ‘indecent’ or ‘patently offensive’ speech entirely, thus impermissibly reducing the adult population to ‘only what is fit for children.’”

Without a doubt, the Blue Ribbon Campaign was crucial in mobilizing internet users and webmasters to join the resistance against threats to online free speech. Thousands of sites across the globe displayed the blue ribbon in support of free speech, and, in a parallel act of resistance, over 1,400 sites turned their pages black for Black Thursday, on February 8, 1996.

Blue ribbons return to protest COPA

In 1998, the EFF launched the Blue Ribbon Campaign once more. This time the campaign protested the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), regarded as a sequel to the CDA, that again threatened free speech.

The purpose of COPA was to make it illegal to commercially distribute material that was harmful to minors via the internet. The EFF’s “numerous problems” with COPA included “overbreadth, vagueness of definitions of key terms such as ‘commercial,’ an illegal attempt to force adults to give up privacy to exercise their right to read... and a flawed ‘community standards’ approach that would allow the most conservative jurisdiction in the US country to set the ‘decency’ standards for all Web content nationally (indeed, globally).”

“an illegal attempt to force adults to give up privacy to exercise their right to read...”
With help from the second Blue Ribbon Campaign, COPA was struck down by a U.S. federal court in 1999.

Laying a foundation for digital activism

The CDA and COPA were major threats to online freedom of speech. Had either law been passed without protest, we probably wouldn’t have the relatively free internet we have today.

The Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign was central to that protest. It raised public awareness and helped change opinions about our rights online.

It also set the standard for future digital rights campaigns by introducing ‘action alert’ web code and easy ways to visibly support free speech online. Today’s campaigns are much more sophisticated, but they still use the same core ideas.

We can’t know what the internet would be like today without the Blue Ribbon Campaign. We can only be thankful it protected our rights.