May 22, 2001 01:14pm
US High Court to Decide Internet Pornography Law
by: James Vicini
(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would hear a Justice Department appeal aimed at allowing the federal government to enforce a 1998 law intended to protect minors from Internet pornography.
The justices agreed to review whether a U.S. appeals court properly barred the law's enforcement on constitutional free-speech grounds because it relies on community standards to identify online material harmful to minors.
Returning to an issue that pits free-speech rights against efforts by Congress to protect minors from online pornography, the high court will hear arguments and then issue its decision during its term that begins in October.
The Child Online Protection Act, adopted by Congress and signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1998, would require commercial site operators on the World Wide Web to impose electronic proof-of-age systems before allowing Internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors.
First-time violators would face up to six months in prison and a $50,000 fine.
The law, which has never been enforced, was immediately challenged on First Amendment grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 17 groups and business, including online magazine publishers and booksellers.
Congress came up with the law in a new effort to regulate access by minors to Internet pornography after the Supreme Court in 1997 struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
JUDGE SAYS LAW MAY BE FATALLY FLAWED
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on the grounds that the law violated free-speech rights, saying site operators had no effective way of screening out minors and ruling that the law probably was fatally flawed.
The appeals court upheld the injunction. It specifically objected to the law's reliance on ``contemporary community standards'' and said Web site operators would be unable to determine the geographic location of site visitors using a worldwide computer network.
To comply with the law, operators would have to severely censor their Web sites or would have to adopt age or credit card verification systems to shield minors from material deemed harmful ``by the most puritan of communities in any state,'' the appeals court said.
Acting Solicitor General Barbara Underwood of the Justice Department said in the Supreme Court appeal the case involved the scope of Congress' power to protect minors from sexually explicit online material.
She said the appeals court has perhaps fatally restricted the power of Congress to address ``that serious problem'' and called the ruling ``dramatic and extraordinary in its scope.''
Adult verification services that cost $16.95 a year represent an acceptable ``price to pay for protecting children from the harmful effects of graphic pornographic images,'' she said.
ACLU lawyer Ann Beeson replied that the appeal should be denied. She said the appeals court correctly held that the law would suppress a large amount of speech on the Web that adults are entitled to communicate and receive.
She said the criminal penalties would apply to millions of commercial content providers. A Web site operator could be found guilty for a single description or image on a Web page, and the law would cover Web-based chat rooms and discussion groups.
As an alternative to the law, concerned parents could use blocking or filtering technology to shield children from online pornography, Beeson said.
In a statement, Beeson said, ``We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate to the court that Congress has once again fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Internet.''
She added, ``How else can you explain a law that makes criminals of our clients, who include the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, writers of sexual advice columns and Web sites for a bookstore, an art gallery and the Philadelphia Gay News, to name a few.''