Supreme Court Sends Internet Censorship Law Back To Lower Court

Justices Say 3rd Circuit Failed to Consider All Constitutional Problems of Child Online Protection Act

In a decision that leaves key First Amendment questions unresolved, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the "Child Online Protection Act," which Congress and the president approved in 1998, remains constitutionally troubling and cannot take effect until a federal appeals court reconsiders the law. At the same time, the Court reversed the appeals court’s ruling that the act was unconstitutional because of its use of "community standards."

People For the American Way Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the law, known as COPA, violated the First Amendment, praised the high court’s decision to keep the injunction against the law in place. COPA made it a crime to knowingly distribute via the Internet any material deemed harmful to children.

"Though the court did not rule directly on COPA’s constitutionality, it did keep this burdensome law from taking effect," said PFAW President Ralph G. Neas. "COPA is the worst of both worlds. It fails to give real help to parents in controlling what their children see while in cyberspace. And it would prevent people of all ages from having access to a range of important educational and other material."

In June 2000, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s injunction against COPA, finding that the law was likely unconstitutional. PFAWF filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court urging it to uphold the 3rd Circuit’s decision. PFAWF is also involved in a challenge to a similar Internet law in Virginia. That case is pending before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The high court did say that COPA’s use of "community standards" to determine what amounts to harmful material to children does not render the law unconstitutional contrary to the 3rd Circuit’s ruling. The justices sent the case back to the 3rd Circuit for it to consider constitutional problems that the high court said were not addressed by the lower court.

COPA is the second attempt by the federal government to criminalize the distribution of certain types of material in cyberspace. In 1997, the Supreme Court invalidated the first attempt, called the Communications Decency Act (CDA), saying it was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. PFAWF was also involved in the legal challenges to the CDA.

To follow PFAW Foundation’s work in defending free speech rights, visit PFAW’s Web Site at http://www.pfaw.org/issues/constitutional_freedoms/

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