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May 13, 2002 04:39pm
Supreme Court: More Review of Web Porn Law
Source: Reuters
by: Company Press Release

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that community standards may be used to shield minors from Internet pornography, but said other free-speech problems must be resolved before the restrictions in the federal law can take effect.

By an 8-1 vote, the justices set aside a U.S. appeals court ruling that the law violated constitutional free-speech protections solely because it relied on community standards to identify online pictures and writings harmful to minors.

Justice Clarence Thomas said reliance on community standards does not by itself render the law too broad under the First Amendment, but he acknowledged other constitutional problems with the law need to be decided.

The Child Online Protection Act adopted by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, requires commercial Web site operators to use credit cards or adult access systems before allowing Internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors.

The law has never been enforced. It immediately was challenged on First Amendment grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union and 17 groups and businesses, including online magazine publishers and booksellers.

Thomas said the government still remained barred from enforcing the law, sending the case back for a lower court in Philadelphia to decide whether it was unconstitutionally vague, too broad for other reasons or failed to survive strict scrutiny.

Last month, the court struck down by a 6-3 vote a separate federal law banning "virtual child pornography" that uses young adults or computer-generated pictures to depict children, ruling it violates free speech rights.

The new ruling ensured the legal battle will go forward in a case that has pitted free-speech rights against efforts by Congress to regulate cyberspace by keeping minors away from online pornography.

'Enough Doubts'

"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.

"This case is still very much a work in progress," she said, noting a majority of the court appeared to have grave doubts about the law's constitutionality. "We are confident the court will ultimately strike down this law," she said.

The appeals court specifically objected to how the law defined harmful as based on the average person in applying "contemporary community standards" and said it would effectively force all speakers on the Web to abide by the "most puritan" standards.

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said a "very real likelihood" existed that the law was too broad and would not survive further review.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer, in separate concurring opinions, both supported a national standard for the Internet.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said community standards would not work in cyberspace. He said, "The community that wishes to live without certain material not only rids itself, but the entire Internet of the offending speech."

He said speech is effectively prohibited whenever the least tolerant communities find it harmful to minors.

Stevens expressed concern the law could cover advertisements, online magazines, bulletin boards, chat rooms, stock photo galleries, Web diaries and a variety of illustrations encompassing a vast number of messages.

Spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said the Justice Department was "pleased" by the ruling and would defend the law as it undergoes further review in the courts.

Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice [http://Aclj.org], a conservative legal group, said the decision "makes one thing very clear: there are still many constitutional hurdles ahead in the battle to protect children from online pornography."

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