Narrow Ruling Stresses Importance of First Amendment in Cyberspace
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction against the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a 1998 law that imposes stiff criminal and civil penalties — fines as high as $50,000 per day and imprisonment for up to six months — for Web content that is deemed “harmful to minors.”
“This is an important victory for the principle that the First Amendment applies to the Internet,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “The Court decided not to endorse a law that would replace judgments of individual parents with a one-size-fits-all standard that squelches First Amendment freedoms. We are hopeful that the final decision in this case will declare this law unconstitutional.”
Neas said the narrow decision demonstrates the impact that future nominees to this closely divided court will have on the First Amendment and other key legal and constitutional questions. PFAWF’s recently published Courting Disaster 2004 report documents that just one or two additional justices in the mold of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas could lead to the overturning of more than 100 Supreme Court precedents going back more than 65 years, on issues including civil rights, privacy, religious liberty, environmental protection, and more.
In an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Court earlier this year, People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) and other groups contended that the law should be found unconstitutional. PFAWF argued that the law could effectively reduce adults to reading material fit only for minors and that parents and families have other alternatives to control their children’s access to undesirable Internet content.
“Under COPA, Web site operators could be discouraged from maintaining content such as information on breast cancer, copies of Kenneth Starr’s report to Congress on the Lewinsky affair, or online images of Michelangelo’s sculpture of David,” said Elliot Mincberg, legal director at People For the American Way Foundation.
“There are reasonable steps that parents can take without a destructive law like COPA,” said Mincberg. “Voluntary filtering software, while far from perfect, is something millions of parents choose to help draw parameters for children’s Internet use. Other parents visually monitor their children’s Web use. Unlike COPA, neither of these approaches restricts the material that is available to other children, other parents, or to adults. We believe that the government will not be able to bear its heavy burden to uphold this law.”