Maintaining Ban on Internet Censorship Law, Supreme Court Asks Lower Court to Revisit Ruling

May 13, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–The American Civil Liberties Union today said it was pleased with a Supreme Court decision maintaining a ban on a law that criminalizes constitutionally protected speech on the Internet.

In keeping the ban in place, the Court did not decide any of the legal questions, but asked the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the case on a wider range of First Amendment issues.

“The Court clearly had enough doubts about this broad censorship law to leave in place the ban, which is an enormous relief to our clients,” said Ann Beeson, Litigation Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, who argued the case before the Justices last November.

“As the Court indicated, this case is still very much a work in progress,” she added, noting that a majority of the Court appeared to have grave doubts about the ultimate constitutionality of the law. “Just as the Court has struck down other laws that attempt to reduce the adult population to reading only what is fit for children, we are confident that the Court will ultimately strike down this law.”

The so-called Child Online Protection Act, also known as “COPA,” made it a federal crime to use the World Wide Web to communicate “for commercial purposes” material considered “harmful to minors,” with penalties of up to $150,000 for each day of violation and up to six months in prison.

In its legal challenge to the Act, the ACLU said constitutional flaws in this law were identical to the flaws that led the Supreme Court to strike down the Communications Decency Act, Congress’s earlier attempt at Internet censorship, in a landmark 1997 ruling.

The speech at issue in today’s case, Beeson noted, includes sexual advice columns, discussion boards on gynecology, and websites for a bookstore, an art gallery, and the Philadelphia Gay News, among others.

It is now up to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether to rule based on the facts the district court used to grant the preliminary injunction against the law, or to send the case back down for a full trial before Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr., of the District Court in Philadelphia.

In addition to today’s case over a federal “”harmful-to-minors”” law, the ACLU has brought successful challenges to state “harmful-to-minors” laws in Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Arizona and Vermont. A case brought in Virginia also resulted in a “”harmful-to-minors”” law being struck down. The ACLU noted that the state challenges were successful because of the impossibility of verifying the age as well as location of Internet users.

The case is Ashcroft v. ACLU, The Supreme Court’s ruling is online here.

Complete information on the case, including the lower court decisions, is online at the ACLU’s Ashcroft v. ACLU Feature Page

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