High Court Unveils 3 Major Decisions: Law Restricting Indecent Speech on Internet Falls

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court pulled the plug yesterday on Congress' attempt to shield children from indecent or patently offensive words and pictures on the Internet.

Saying the court earlier disdained speech restrictions that "burned the house to roast the pig," the 7-2 ruling declared that the Communications Decency Act "threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community."

The opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, declared two key CDA provisions unconstitutional and upheld a District Court panel in Pennsylvania that said the law intrudes on free-speech rights of children as well as adults.

Joining the majority were Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

The justices were unanimous that the law's challenged provisions are unconstitutional, but Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor did not agree with the majority's reasoning.

The decision leaves some of the law standing - including sections on child pornography and stalking by pedophiles - but eliminates the ban on knowingly transmitting obscene or indecent messages to a specific child under age 18 or posting "patently offensive" material on a "chat room" or Web site where it might be seen by minors.

Justice Stevens said the overturned provisions would threaten two-year prison terms or a $250,000 fine to a mother allowing a 17-year-old to use a family computer to obtain information she deems appropriate or a parent who sent birth-control information by e-mail to a 17-year-old college student if the material was "patently offensive" in the town where the college is located.

"Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, we agree with the three-judge District Court that the statute abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment," the opinion said.

Justice O'Connor, joined by the chief justice, wrote a separate opinion, arguing there are acceptable ways to shut such material away from children by creating what are called adult zones.

"Despite the soundness of its purpose, however, portions of the CDA . . . stray from the blueprint our prior cases have developed for constructing a `zoning law' that passes constitutional muster," Justice O'Connor wrote.

The court took pains to deride the Clinton administration's policy claim that federal regulation would help the Internet flourish. The court said it's doing quite well without the government's help.

"In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it," the court said of a system that boasts of 40 million people using 9.4 million computers.

The decision produced a storm of protest from groups dedicated to blocking children's access to explicit sex-oriented materials. Communications companies and civil liberties activists praised the decision not to censor cyberspace. …