Free Speech Victory In Virginia Internet Case

4th Circuit Rules Against Curbing Speech on the Web

In a significant victory for free speech advocates, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has upheld a lower court ruling invalidating a Virginia law aimed at curbing speech on the Internet. People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) was co-counsel in the First Amendment case, and hailed the decision.

“This decision reaffirms that the First Amendment applies to the vast electronic reach of the Internet just as it applies to the written word," said PFAWF President Ralph G. Neas. “It also helps ensures that a generation of people raised with the Internet will not be denied access to a broad range of information on health care, literature, the arts and human sexuality.”

The 4th Circuit ruling in PSINet vs. Chapman upholds a 2002 decision by U.S. District Judge James H. Michael, Jr. He ruled that a Virginia law that made it a crime for web site operators to publish any material that could be considered “harmful to minors” violated the First Amendment. Michael acknowledged the state's interest in protecting minors from becoming exposed to "sexually explicit materials," but concluded that the Virginia law was too broad and would infringe on the free speech rights of adults.

As one of the co-counsels in the case, People For the American Way Foundation argued that the Virginia law was so broad it would block access to many educational sites on the web, depriving minors and adults of useful information. Similar laws in New York, New Mexico, and Michigan have also been judged as unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of a similar federal law.

"Parents and families should make their own decisions about what to see or do on the Internet, not the state or federal government,” said Neas. “This nation is always made stronger by the free flow of ideas, and the growing use of the vast resources on the Internet is no exception. The government must not take on the role of ‘national nanny’ with flawed attempts to require Internet filters or criminalize free speech.”

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