Federal Court Pulls Plug on Internet Decency Law: Ruling: Freedom of Speech Violated

Article excerpt

A special three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia yesterday struck down parts of a law intended to shield minors from smut on the Internet as an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

"Cutting through the acronyms and the argot, . . . the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation," U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote for the court.

"The government may not, through the Communications Decency Act, interrupt that conversation," he wrote.

"As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection against governmental intrusion," the court said.

More than 50 groups, from the American Library Association to the American Civil Liberties Union to on-line interests, filed two lawsuits to block enforcement of the law. They welcomed the first major court decision defining the nature of the Internet's contents.

"The court today did for children and adults what Congress did not: It decided that parental-control tools combined with user education and enforcement of existing laws is a more effective and constitutional way to protect children and safeguard our freedom," said Bill Burrington, assistant general counsel for America Online Inc., which, with 6 million subscribers, is the nation's biggest on-line service.

President Clinton said in a statement released by the White House: "I remain convinced, as I was when I signed the bill, that our Constitution allows us to help parents by enforcing this act to prevent children from being exposed to objectionable material transmitted through computer networks."

He added that he strongly supports industry efforts to devise ways for parents and schools to filter what children see, as well as a system of content ratings.

The panel - Chief Judge Dolores Sloviter of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter and Judge Dalzell - put out a two-page order and added 175 pages of opinions based on five days of hearings.

The judges did not topple provisions that make it a crime to post or send obscenity and child pornography, which are illegal in any form, where someone younger than 18 could see them.

But the law also prescribed criminal penalties as harsh as a $250,000 fine and two years in prison for displaying materials "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards."

Opponents said that provision threatened to put people in prison for posting information about sex education, AIDS, abortion or breast cancer or for displaying works of art where children could see them.

"The court has taken the ACLU line that anything goes on the Internet, even though that overlooks well-established laws protecting children from pornography in other areas," said Sen. Jim Exon, Nebraska Democrat and sponsor of the Internet decency bill. "Hopefully, reason and common sense will prevail in the Supreme Court."

The government may appeal the decision directly to the Supreme Court, a move the Justice Department said it will consider. …