Court Upholds Ban on Obscene E-Mail
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a federal law that makes it a crime to send e-mails that are obscene or lewd as a way to annoy other people.
Rejecting a First Amendment challenge to one part of the sweeping 1996 Communications Decency Act, the justices ruled against a San Francisco-based company that runs a Web site called annoy.com and allows people to send anonymous messages to public officials. ApolloMedia Corp. claimed the act's terms were confusing and that it would discourage people from writing lawful but bawdy communications.
But the justices affirmed a lower court ruling that interpreted the provision as banning only "obscenity," that is, prurient communications that lack literary, political or other social value and therefore merit no First Amendment protection.
Yesterday's court action was not the usual start-of-the-week order rejecting an appeal and letting stand a lower court decision. The justices' one-sentence order affirmed the lower court and effectively endorsed the constitutionality of the e-mail provision.
The law makes it a crime to send a message that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person." ApolloMedia had argued that because the law's terms go beyond obscenity, it impinges on legitimate free speech and makes the firm vulnerable to criminal prosecution.
Such terms are important. While the high court has said obscenity – effectively, hard-core pornography – gets no First Amendment coverage, it has protected other sexually explicit and "indecent" material that offers some social value.
Two years ago the court struck down another part of the Communications Decency Act that targeted sexually explicit materials that children might see on the Internet. The justices said the prohibition was too broadly written and violated adults' free speech rights.
In yesterday's case, a special three-judge panel in California had ruled the e-mail provision targets only obscene materials. Referring to other congressional statutes, the court said the string of descriptions beginning with "obscene" was meant to characterize only illegally obscene material.
Agreeing with the interpretation in ApolloMedia v. Reno, the Justice Department said it would prosecute only obscenity. But that was not enough assurance for ApolloMedia, which says that while its communications are not obscene they could be considered indecent.
Yesterday the annoy.com home page featured the faces of the nine justices as well as dirty pictures and unprintable expletives. William Bennett Turner, the firm's lawyer, said a future Justice Department may interpret the law more broadly. And he said it has a chilling effect now: "It uses the term 'indecent.' How are ordinary users of the Internet supposed to know that it doesn't mean what it says?"
Separately, the justices agreed to take up a California case testing whether the constitutional guarantee of self-representation at trial extends to a defendant seeking to argue his own case on appeal.
Salvador Martinez was convicted of embezzlement last year. Because of prior convictions under California's "three strikes" law, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. In his appeal, Martinez waived his right to a court-appointed lawyer and said he wanted to represent himself.
But a state appeals court forbade him, saying a criminal defendant has no right of self-representation on appeal. Martinez v. Court of Appeal of California will be heard in the term that begins in the fall.
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