Fourth Circuit Considers Arguments in Appeal of Judge's Ruling Striking Down Virginia Internet Law

PFAWF, as Co-Counsel, Stands for Free Speech, Opposes Overly Broad Ban on Speech in Cyberspace

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments October 28th in Richmond concerning the appeal of a ruling that set a strong precedent protecting the freedom of speech on the Internet. That ruling helped to solidify protection of electronic speech as equivalent to the protection of written and oral speech.

In October 2001, U.S. District Judge James H. Michael, Jr. enjoined Virginia from enforcing a law that broadly banned businesses and individuals from sending and receiving information of a sexually explicit nature which a prosecutor might deem “harmful to minors.” While Judge Michael acknowledged that the state had a duty to protect minors from explicit material, he found that the law would do nothing to protect minors, but instead would chill and infringe on the free speech rights of adults.

“When free speech for all Americans is on the line, the government cannot serve as a substitute for a guardian’s protection of a minor’s interests,” said Larry Ottinger, Senior Staff Attorney with People For the American Way Foundation. “As Judge Michael determined, when a state attempts to ban such a broad category of information, our freedoms suffer.”

People For the American Way Foundation, serving as co-counsel in the case, argued that the Virginia law, which would restrict all Internet communication including listservs, newspapers, email and the Web, could prohibit minors and adults from communicating a broad range of information relating to health, literature, human sexuality, and the arts. This pitfall has compelled judges to enjoin similar laws in New York, New Mexico and Michigan, as well as a pair of federal laws.

The plaintiffs are represented by the law firms of Wiley, Rein & Fielding, Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal and Michie, Hamlett, Lowry, Rasmussen & Tweel, as well as by attorneys with PFAWF and the Thomas Jefferson Center For the Protection Of Free Expression, a non-profit organization headquartered in Charlottesville.

“This politically motivated law will not prevent one minor from viewing sexually explicit material on the global Internet,” said Ottinger. “What it will do is chill the free flow of valuable information and commerce to the detriment of large internet businesses, book and magazine publishers, online health information providers and others, all of whom are represented as plaintiffs here.”

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