By Robert MacMillan washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; 1:07 PM
The Supreme Court today said that a law aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography probably violates free-speech rights, but for the second time the justices sent the case back to a lower court for a new trial.
The court ruled 5 to 4 that a lower court was correct to block the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). But today's ruling said the lower court should consider whether technological advances have made it possible to keep children from looking at "harmful" material online without compromising the free-speech rights of adults.
The court specifically recommended increased use of "filtering" software that, once installed on computers, can block certain kinds of content. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, conceded that filters are not perfect, but said that "content-based prohibitions" like COPA "have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people."
The decision is a temporary victory for free-speech groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, but it gives the U.S. Justice Department another shot at proving that COPA does not violate the First Amendment. For now, the law remains on hold.
Justice Department officials were unavailable for comment on whether its attorneys would reargue the case.
"Our society has reached a broad consensus that child obscenity is harmful to our youngest generation and must be stopped," spokesman Mark Corallo said in a written statement. "Congress has repeatedly attempted to address this serious need and the court yet again opposed these common-sense measures to protect America's children."
Ann Beeson, who argued the Supreme Court case for the ACLU, said the court "has made it safe for artists, sex educators and Web publishers to communicate with adults about sexuality without risking jail time."
COPA would penalize operators of commercial Web sites that do not try to block access to sexual material considered "harmful to minors." Offenders would be subject to daily fines of up to $50,000 per violation, and could get up to six months in jail.
Former president Bill Clinton signed COPA in 1998 in response to a growing outcry among family associations and legislators that pornography was rampant on the Internet and easily available to children.
Congress passed COPA in response to a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that struck down most of an earlier law called the Communications Decency Act that would have prohibited sending "indecent" or "obscene" material to children. The law also would have outlawed putting "patently offensive material" where children could reach it on the Internet.