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Filter - Cynthia L. Webb
Court Pours Cold Water on Porn Law


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By Cynthia L. Webb Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; 9:48 AM

The Supreme Court's decision to send the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) back to a lower court is reaping praise among civil liberties groups and disappointment from conservative policy groups -- and could prove the beginning of a boom of sorts for software companies that develop products that let parents restrict what their kids can see on the Internet.

First a quick refresher on what COPA is, courtesy of Reuters: "The law in question requires that Web site operators use credit cards or adult access codes and personal identification numbers to keep minors from seeing harmful pornography."

The Washington Post wrote about the law's chances of survival: "The decision means that unless the federal government can convince a federal judge that COPA's provisions are the only plausible means to prevent children from finding inappropriate sexual material on the Internet, the statute, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998, will be dead," The Washington Post wrote. "It is unclear how the government can win the case after yesterday's ruling. [Justice Anthony M.] Kennedy's opinion strongly suggested that the government could have accomplished its purposes by encouraging parents to use software that filters out pornography. Kennedy noted that COPA's criminal penalties would not reach Web sites that originate in foreign countries, while a filter would."

USA Today said the "court's majority suggested the law is likely unconstitutional, and it suggested that perhaps parents, rather than lawmakers, should take the lead in screening kids' Web access."

"Yesterday's decision highlights the problem of trying to impose laws on something that evolves as rapidly as technology. 'More and better filtering alternatives may exist than when the District Court entered its findings' more than five years ago, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion," The New York Times reported. "The opinion suggested that when it comes to fixing the problems that technology brings, the justices are more willing to put their trust in the authors of consumer software than in the authors of legislation; filtering software, unlike laws, can be updated weekly."
Reuters: Supreme Court Bars Enforcement of Internet Porn Law
The Washington Post: Justices Oppose Internet Porn Law (Registration required)
USA Today: High Court Upholds Block of Web Porn Law
The New York Times: Antipornography Law Keeps Crashing Into First Amendment (Registration required)

The Los Angeles Times reported that the court "also said the free-speech rights of adult users of the Internet should not be sacrificed if there were more effective ways to protect children." And software filters are "preferable to permitting the government to go after websites whose customers are adults, Kennedy said. Moreover, since an estimated 40% of the pornography on the Internet comes from overseas, a federal law targeting U.S. producers would not truly shield America's children, he said."

However, Reuters noted that the ruling "does not resolve the constitutional question in a case pitting free speech against efforts by the U.S. Congress to protect minors from online pornography. The court majority sent the case back to a federal judge in Philadelphia for a trial to consider changes in technology and law since the 1998 adoption of the Child Online Protection Act. The ruling gave the government another chance to show the law does not impose an unconstitutional burden. The ruling marked the second time the court has considered the 1998 law, but failed to issue a definitive ruling on it."
The Los Angeles Times: Court Rejects Law Blocking Internet Porn (Registration required)
Text of ruling

The Ruling's Fan Club

The decision is "a major victory for free speech on the Internet," Jerry Berman, president of Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, told The New York Times. John Morris, staff counsel for the center, "predicted that the case would spend several more years at the appeals level and eventually come back to the Supreme Court. Morris said that instead of restricting access, parents should educate themselves about the Internet and teach children 'how to comport themselves online,'" reported.

Ann Beeson, who argued the case for the American Civil Liberties Union, was quoted by The Boston Globe as saying: "This law went far beyond what most of us think of as pornography," she said. "It criminalized words, not just images, and had a definition of prohibited speech that clearly put at risk many artists, sex educators, and mainstream magazines like Salon. Those people, because of today's ruling, are now all safe to communicate about sexuality without facing jail time." Beeson will be online today on for a Live Online chat about the decision. Justices Leave Online Porn Case Unresolved (Registration required)
The Boston Globe: Justices Bar Curbs On Explicit Web Sites

Christopher Wolf, a Washington attorney and president of the Hands Off the Internet group, told The San Francisco Chronicle that the ruling is "as close as the court was willing to go in saying that broad wholesale regulations of Internet content probably will never pass muster."
The San Francisco Chronicle: High Court Won't Allow Enforcement of Porn Law

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