Seven years ago Donna Rice Hughes sat down with a friend to surf the Web. Their online excursion was part of Mrs. Hughes's new job: fighting Internet pornography as communications director for Enough is Enough, a Washington-based anti-porn group. Mrs. Hughes was shocked as her friend demonstrated how easy it was to click into pornographic Web pages. "Every time a child is on the Internet with unrestricted access they're at risk for exposure to pornography and sexual predators," she says now. "That just grieves me."
Mrs. Hughes, now an oft-quoted anti-Web-porn activist, got a different kind of grief the first time she caught the public eye: In May 1987 presidential candidate Gary Hart, a former Colorado senator and a married man, challenged reporters to prove rumors that he was a womanizer. The Miami Herald met the challenge and then The National Enquirer ran a photo on its cover of aspiring model Donna Rice perched in Mr. Hart's lap aboard a boat called Monkey Business. A tidal wave of media coverage-in the days when Americans took seriously adultery by Oval Office occupants or aspirants-shipwrecked Mr. Hart's run for the White House.
Meanwhile, Miss Rice withdrew quietly from public view. Although she could have used her new notoriety to rev up her modeling career, she instead returned to the Christian faith of her youth. She surfaced quietly again in the mid-1990s, by then married to businessman Jack Hughes, and concerned about the danger posed by online indecency. (See WORLD, "Then and now," April 19, 1997). In 2001, she's still crusading-and she's making progress.
In April, a law for which Mrs. Hughes spent three years lobbying Congress finally took effect. Passed in December, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires all public libraries and schools to install software to prevent children from viewing Internet pornography on computers at those institutions. The law hits public schools and libraries where they live: in the pocketbook. Under CIPA, libraries and schools that fail to install filtering software lose federal funding.
The American Library Association, American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and other civil liberties groups already have filed suit, charging the law would censor constitutionally protected information. Mrs. Hughes, now 43, is used to that. These groups teamed with liberal courts to kill similar legislation she fought for in 1996 and 1998.
Still, she fought on.
In 1998, her book Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace (Revell) hit stores, spelling out Web-porn dangers and solutions. That year she also launched www.protectkids.com, an Internet safety website. Then in 1999, Congress appointed Mrs. Hughes to the 19-member Child Online Protection Commission, created to help Congress find ways to protect children online. (She co-chaired commission hearings last July and helped author the group's report, released in October 2000.) Meanwhile Mrs. Hughes graduated from communications director at Enough is Enough to vice president but left the group in 1999, and now is spokeswoman for FamilyClick.com, a family-friendly Internet service provider.
Mrs. Hughes wages her anti-porn war from Northern Virginia, where she attends McLean Bible Church, a nondenominational Christian fellowship. She hosts a weekly woman's prayer group in her home. Prayer also permeates her work, she says: "The hardest thing is dealing with spiritual warfare on the front lines of a very dark issue. Pornography is a tool of the enemy to exploit our God-given sexuality. We not only need to fight it in the physical realm, but also in the spiritual realm."
What has she learned through her activism? That many parents are unaware of the perils posed to children by unrestricted Web access.
"You have to be blunt for them to see the dangers," insists Mrs. Hughes. "If they don't understand that a sexual predator can come in and disguise [himself] as another child, and build a relationship with their child and groom them, they may not take action." Statistics back her up: Only about a third of parents report using filtering technology to block pornographic material on their home computers, according to the Internet Safety Association. A 1999 study by the research firm Yankelovich Partners revealed that 62 percent of parents of teenagers are unaware that their children have accessed objectionable websites.
As Mrs. Hughes has battled to educate parents and legislators, her identification with one particular legislator has receded. Rarely asked about the Hart scandal, she battles through long hours in hostile meetings on Capitol Hill and a frenetic speaking and interview schedule. "My life would be a lot easier if I wasn't doing this," she laughs, "but I feel God has called me."