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High court to consider online porn law

By The Associated Press

05.21.01

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed today to take a fresh look at whether congressional efforts to limit children's access to online smut violates free-speech principles.

The court agreed to review lower court decisions blocking enforcement of a 1998 law that Congress passed, making it a crime to knowingly place objectionable material where a child could find it on the World Wide Web.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech advocates claim the law violates the First Amendment. The Justice Department claims the law correctly targets only material that is inappropriate for children.

The justices are expected to hear the case, Ashcroft v. ACLU, and issue a decision during the court term that begins next October. In the meantime, the Justice Department is barred from enforcing the 1998 Child Online Protection Act.

The legislation, signed into law by then-President Clinton, sets out criminal penalties or civil fines for failing to ensure only adult eyes will see adult material offered commercially online.

The law was a response to the Supreme Court's decision in ACLU v. Reno striking down an earlier ban on making online pornography available to children. The court found that Congress' first attempt was unconstitutional because it would also prevent adults from seeing what they had a free-speech right to see.

Sexually explicit words and pictures are protected by the Constitution's First Amendment if they are deemed indecent but not obscene.

The Supreme Court's ruling in 1997 invalidated a key provision of the Communications Decency Act passed the year before and challenged by the ACLU.

Congress and the White House said they would try again.

The resulting 1998 law requires commercial Web sites to collect a credit card number or an access code as proof of age before allowing Internet users to view online material deemed "harmful to minors."

The newer law calls for maximum criminal penalties of six months in jail and $50,000 in fines, and additional fines for repeat violators.

In an attempt to clear the Supreme Court hurdle, the second law defines indecency much more specifically. It also limits prosecution to commercial material found on the Web, as opposed to the wider online terrain of e-mail, chat rooms and so forth.

The ACLU claimed the law is unconstitutional nonetheless. The day after Clinton signed it civil liberties groups sued to prevent the law from taking effect. Lower federal courts in Pennsylvania granted that request, and the law has been in limbo.

The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted in its ruling last year that there may be no constitutional way for government to shield children from online pornography.

"The court of appeals has thus gravely, indeed in its own view perhaps fatally, constricted Congress' power to address that serious problem," Acting Solicitor General Barbara Underwood wrote in court papers.

The ACLU and other groups ranging from bookstores to a Web site called OBGYN.net said the appeals court ruled correctly, and they urged the high court not to get involved.

Update

Justices weigh issue of kids and online porn
In Ashcroft v. ACLU, high court ponders whether government went too far in trying to protect children.  11.28.01

Previous

COPA fails to get past federal appeals panel
3rd Circuit says government can't apply 'contemporary community standards' in cyberspace.  06.23.00

Related

Supreme Court to examine 5 First Amendment cases
Analysis School voucher controversy to take spotlight, but Internet pornography, adult bookstores and protest permits also will share stage.  10.01.01

ACLU attorney takes all-or-nothing approach in arguing against COPA
Analysis Some Supreme Court justices seem perturbed that lawyer was unwilling to give any ground; others appear convinced that the law can't be salvaged.  11.29.01

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