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Supreme Court partially upholds COPA

By The Associated Press

05.13.02

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today partly upheld a law intended to shield children from online pornography, but said there are unresolved free-speech questions that prevent the law from taking effect now.

The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law as unconstitutional, claiming that in protecting children the Child Online Protection Act also violates the rights of adults to see or buy what they want on the Internet.

A divided Supreme Court said that the law's use of what it calls "community standards" to define what is harmful to children does not by itself make the law unconstitutional, as a lower federal appeals court ruled.

But the court went on to say that there are other potential constitutional problems with the law that were not addressed by the lower court. Without taking a position on those other potential problems, the high court threw out the lower court's ruling and sent the case back for further review.

The high court action means the 1998 law is still on hold, and the government is barred from enforcing it.

The ruling in Ashcroft v. ACLU is a partial victory for the Bush administration, but neither side got what it really wanted.

The law, known as COPA, makes it a crime to knowingly place material deemed harmful to children within their easy reach on the Internet. Violators may be fined up to $50,000, and sentenced to six months in jail.

The law also requires adults to use access codes and or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online.

The ACLU challenged the law on behalf of artists, sex therapists and others who post legitimate, if risqué, material on the World Wide Web.

Eight justices agreed that the case should be sent back to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a closer look, although they differed in their reasons. Only Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.

"The scope of our decision today is quite limited," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a five-member court majority. "We hold only that COPA's reliance on community standards to identify 'material that is harmful to minors' does not by itself render the statute substantially overbroad," in violation of the First Amendment, Thomas wrote.

He pointedly said the court would take no position on the ACLU's claims that the law is unconstitutionally broad and vague for reasons apart from community standards.

"Prudence dictates allowing the court of appeals to first examine these difficult issues," Thomas wrote.

Stevens said the appeals court acted correctly, and that the entire law should be struck down as unconstitutional.

Although the court has previously used the concept of local community standards to evaluate potentially offensive material, the same standard cannot be applied to the global Internet, Stevens argued.

"In the context of the Internet ... community standards become a sword, rather than a shield. If a prurient appeal is offensive in a Puritan village, it may be a crime to post it on the World Wide Web," Stevens wrote.

The law was written as a replacement for a 1996 statute, the Communications Decency Act, that the Supreme Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional in 1997.

Congress had admirable intentions in trying to help parents keep children away from the growing volume of salacious and pornographic material online, the court said then. Where Congress went wrong, the court said, was in making the law so broad that it covered pornographic material that adults have the right to see, as well as nonpornographic sexual material.

Congress tried again a year later, and although the second attempt would impose fewer restrictions, civil liberties groups challenged it on the same First Amendment grounds the high court found persuasive before.

The case focused this time on how to reconcile the ways of the freewheeling Internet with laws and court precedents from an era that assumed pornography was a tangible thing, such as a girlie magazine that could be wrapped in paper or hidden behind the store counter.

Material that is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment. Adults may see or purchase it, but children may not. For the owner of the corner store, it is relatively easy to sell to adults but not to children. The inherent anonymity of the Internet, and the freedom of movement it offers, make it difficult to offer adult material only to adults.

In writing the 1998 law, Congress said "contemporary community standards" should guide what is harmful to children. Civil liberties defenders said, as Stevens did, that the standard would lead to the most prudish place in America having veto power over the most liberal, because Internet material is available to them both.

The ACLU also said the community standards idea would force legitimate Web site operators to self-censor, for fear of running afoul of someone's idea of what is inappropriate for children.

The Bush administration endorsed use of such a national standard.

Update

Supreme Court provides mixed day for First Amendment
Analysis Justices produce pair of messy, mix-and-match rulings that give little guidance to lower courts, much less those directly affected.  05.15.02

Previous

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

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

Federal law requiring Net filtering at libraries thrown out
Three judges say Children's Internet Protection Act goes too far, blocking access to sites that contain protected speech.  05.31.02

Bush urges law against virtual child porn
Asks Senate to follow House's lead in passing legislation to bypass Supreme Court ruling.  10.23.02

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