A DECADE AGO, when cyberspace was still mostly a haven for computer jocks and academicians, not many people were likely to notice if someone used a few dirty words or posted a nude picture on the Internet. But now that nine-year-olds and grandmothers are learning to surf, just about anybody can find something objectionable online. That’s why Nebraska senator James Exon sponsored last year’s Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was supposed to get indecent text and images off public areas of the Internet. But the CDA’s reach was so broad that it would have criminalized the online circulation of material that is protected by the First Amendment and available at many libraries—Norman Mailer’s novel American Dream, the famous “seven dirty words” monologue by comedian George Carlin, even legal decisions that quote offensive passages from those works—and it carried a penalty of up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. So on the day last February when President Clinton signed the CDA into law, a group of nineteen organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Writers Union, filed suit in federal court, arguing that it restricted free speech. In June a three-judge panel agreed and struck the CDA down, setting off a round of gleeful celebration on the Net.

Though many lawyers worked for the winning side, none was more visible than 39-year-old Houston native Mike Godwin, who’s widely regarded as one of the most important online-rights activists today. As staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a kind of ACLU for cyberspace, Godwin has won fans and infuriated rivals with his media savvy, obsessive knowledge of the law, and knack for arguing opponents into exhaustion. Since 1990 he has written on legal issues for magazines like Wired and Internet World and spoken endlessly at universities, at public rallies, and to the national media. But it wasn’t until last year that he became a genuine star in cyberspace. During what he calls the “great Internet sex panic of 1995,” Godwin submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, debated Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed on Nightline, and spearheaded the attack on the study of online pornography that became the foundation of Time magazine’s controversial July 3 cover story, “On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn.” Time said the study proved that pornography was “popular, pervasive, and surprisingly perverse” on the Net, but Godwin led such a spirited challenge of the study’s methodology that, three weeks later, the magazine ran a follow-up story admitting it contained “damaging flaws.”

If Godwin seems to have found his niche, he certainly took his time getting there. A graduate of Houston’s Lamar High School in 1975 and the University of Texas’ Plan II honors program in 1980, he went through two stints in UT doctoral programs, first research psychology and then English. In 1983, after he dropped out of graduate school the second time, a friend introduced him to the world of computer bulletin boards, or BBSs, and Godwin lit up. “Having left school, my social world was vastly diminished,” he says. “BBSs kept me sane because I could talk to real people.” He sold computers for a few years, and in 1985 he decided to apply to UT’s law school. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says, “just that I’d be in a different career at the end than I was in at the beginning.” Under the tutelage of courtroom pros like Mike Tigar and Gerry Goldstein and constitutional scholars like Charles Alan Wright, he discovered an affinity for First Amendment and criminal law. (In 1988 he was also elected editor of the Daily Texan.) Though he had only slightly above-average grades, as he neared graduation his particular blend of interests made him the perfect match for a new kind of lawyering. While online, he had learned that the Secret Service, on the trail of computer hackers, was conducting a series of raids across the country, including one on Steve Jackson Games, an Austin company that makes role-playing games. But Godwin knew Jackson and was convinced he had nothing to do with computer hackers. Concerned that the feds were overstepping their bounds, he started answering legal queries on the Internet, and his missives caught the attention of Lotus 1-2-3 creator Mitch Kapor and lyricist-rancher John Perry Barlow, who were just starting the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Kapor and Barlow needed a lawyer who knew First Amendment law, criminal law, and the Internet. At that moment, wrote science fiction author Bruce Sterling, “The disparate elements of Godwin’s dilettantish existence suddenly fell together as neatly as the facets of a Rubik’s Cube.” The EFF, at Godwin’s urging, hired an Austin firm to take Jackson’s case, and in 1993 the company won more than $50,000 in a lawsuit against the Secret Service.

Ever since, Godwin has been one of the online world’s reigning freedom fighters. At his office in Berkeley, California, he answers hundreds of e-mails a day and works on his first book, Cyber Rights: Free Speech in the Digital Age (Random House), due out in January. He’s also getting ready to battle the feds again: The Department of Justice has appealed the CDA decision to the Supreme Court, which will probably hear arguments this fall and could render a decision next June. Godwin seems to realize that this is his moment. “At the time we put this case together,” he says, “I thought I’d been working my entire career as a lawyer for this shot at establishing the First Amendment in cyberspace. But looking back, it turns out that I’ve been working my whole life for it.”