Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Judicial Panel Sides with Free Speech; Blocks Law Barring Indecent Material

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Judicial Panel Sides with Free Speech; Blocks Law Barring Indecent Material

Article excerpt

PHILADELPHIA -- A panel of federal judges blocked enforcement of a new law barring "indecent" material on the Internet, saying Wednesday that the worldwide computer network is protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

In trying to make sense of the free-for-all world of the Internet, a unique three-judge panel granted a preliminary injunction against the Communications Decency Act while two lawsuits wind through the court system.

The unanimous decision, the first major judicial ruling on the Internet, was anxiously awaited by the government and the 57 groups challenging the act. The government has promised to appeal, taking the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

"Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects," the judges wrote.

Only the judges' ruling on the preliminary injunction holds the force of law, but their logic gives the first glimpse of how the federal judiciary will view the Internet.

"That is good, sound -- almost obvious -- First Amendment law," said attorney Robert D. Sack, a First Amendment specialist not involved with the case. "It's hard not to believe that the people who drafted that statute knew that when they drafted it."

Within a half hour of the ruling, 4,000 Web sites with links to a page run by the Voters Telecommunications Watch were trumpeting the news with a graphic that read "Free Speech!"

"All over the Web, people suddenly knew," said Shabbir Safdar of the VTW. "It was like fireworks going off."

Betty Turock, president of the American Library Association, one of the groups that brought the legal action, hailed the ruling as "a victory for librarians, everyone who uses libraries and and everyone who believes in free speech."

The act's supporters were undaunted.

"This wasn't unanticipated with the direction and liberal leanings of these judges. We fully anticipated it going to the Supreme Court level, and ultimately we believe we'll be victorious," said Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition.

The act, enacted Feb. 8 as part of a behemoth overhaul of telecommunications legislation, makes displaying "indecent" or "patently offensive" words or images on the Internet punishable by $250,000 fines and a two-year prison sentence if they are accessible to minors.

With child pornography already illegal, the law was designed to keep nude pictures of adults off screens available to children. But the judges said the effort was likely to fail, noting that, for one thing, much Internet material comes from overseas. …

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