Supreme Court Strikes Down Communications Decency Act

By Flagg, Gordon | American Libraries, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Strikes Down Communications Decency Act


Flagg, Gordon, American Libraries


Librarians, computer users, and civil libertarians scored a decisive victory June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled - unanimously in most respects - that the Communications Decency Act was an unconstitutional violation of free-speech rights.

By a 7-to-2 vote the court upheld a ruling by a federal district court panel last year that blocked the law from taking effect (AL, Aug. 1996, p. 11).

The majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, said that the CDA was so broad and poorly defined that it violated the free speech rights of adults. "It is true that we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials," wrote Justice Stevens. "But that interest does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults."

Concurring opinion

A separate opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist found the law to be constitutional only in cases of deliberate transmission of indecent material "where the party initiating the communication knows that all of the recipients are minors."

Justice Stevens' opinion noted that in order to protect minors "the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and address to one another." In the past, he noted, the court had found that "(s)exual expression which is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment."

Justice Stevens also cited the vagueness of the law, which restricted "indecent" and "patently offensive" material. "We are persuaded the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech."

"The breadth of the CDA's coverage is wholly unprecedented," added Stevens, who pointed out that its "open ended prohibitions" arguably extend to "the card catalogue of the Carnegie Library."

"The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship," the opinion concluded.

The challenge to the law was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, a group including Internet users, publishers, and online service providers with ALA as lead plaintiff. They maintained the act was overly broad and so vaguely worded it would subject librarians and other members of the public to criminal prosecution for posting materials online that are legal in other media.

"The Supreme Court ruling means that Americans will enjoy the same access to information in cyberspace that we have on library and bookstore shelves. It means parents can decide for their own children what they do - and don't - want them to read," said then - ALA President Mary Somerville. "We believe that strict enforcement of existing laws, public education, and improved technology can address these concerns in a way that does not violate the free speech of adults."

Judith Krug, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said the court's ruling "recognized not only the importance of this new communications format, but also the importance of libraries in making information in all forms available and accessible to everyone. …

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