House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is criticizing an amendment added to the Senate’s telecommunications reform bill that imposes stiff fines and prison sentences for distributors of pornography on computer online services such as the Internet.

Gingrich called the provision “clearly a violation of free speech and… a violation of the right of adults to communicate with each other. I don’t agree with it, and I don’t think it is a serious way to discuss a serious issue.”

The provision to crack down on cyberspace smut was offered by Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) and added to info highway legislation passed last week by the Senate. The amendment, which passed by a vote of 84-16, would impose fines of $100,000 and require prison terms of up to two years for distributors of indecent material on computer networks that are available to children 18 and under.

The infopike bill now awaits action on the House floor, where backers of the Exon measure presumably will seek anti-pornography lingo of their own.

Gingrich’s criticism of the Exon amendment came Tuesday night on the cable TV show “Progress Report,” a weekly program that is sponsored by the conservative think tank the Progress & Freedom Foundation.

Gingrich said lawmakers “have to wrestle with in a calm and mature way” matters such as indecent material not only on computer networks, but also on radio and TV.

Exon’s “very badly thought out and not very productive amendment” will only serve to “put the debate back a step,” he said.

Meanwhile, 20 freshmen House Republicans sent a letter to Gingrich on Tuesday asking that the telecom reform bill that emerged from the House Commerce Committee be made more deregulatory once debate begins on the House floor.

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