Federal appeals judges express concern over COPA
The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA A federal law aimed at protecting children from online
pornography will have a chilling effect on free speech and should be struck
down, lawyers told an appeals court yesterday.
The Child Online Protection Act, the second major effort by Congress to
protect children on the Internet, would require commercial Web sites to collect
a credit card number or some other access code as proof of age before allowing
Internet users to view online material that is "harmful to minors."
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law on behalf of 17
clients, claiming it violates the First Amendment's free-speech guarantees and
could be used to unfairly prosecute gays and lesbians, AIDS activists or doctors
distributing gynecological information.
Ann Beeson, an ACLU lawyer, told a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals that the government has a "compelling interest" in protecting
children from pornography, but the Child Online Protection Act is too vague and
could have the effect of hindering constitutionally protected speech.
Last February, a judge issued a preliminary injunction to block the law from
being enforced. The 3rd Circuit must now decide whether to affirm the ruling or
allow the law to take affect.
During oral arguments yesterday, two of the judges expressed concern about a
provision of the law that defines material harmful to minors as something that
an average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find is
designed to appeal to the "prurient interest."
Judge Leonard Garth said that because the World Wide Web is a global medium,
the law might necessarily apply to the most conservative communities.
"The fact that protected material can be kept from adults depending on which
way you read the statute is not a particularly happy result," he said.
The law's supporters say the measure is a sensible way to keep Internet
pornography away from children. Unlike the Communications Decency Act of 1996,
the new law applies only to commercial Web sites. The Supreme Court struck down
two major provisions of the CDA.
"Parents are entitled to government support in shielding their children from
material that is harmful to minors," Justice Department lawyer Jacob Lewis told
The Justice Department argued that the law would act as a "brown paper
wrapper" protecting children from pornographic material. It also said the law
would not apply to general-interest Web sites like Salon, an online magazine
that is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.