The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to resurrect a law requiring Web sites containing “material harmful to minors” to restrict access based on age, presumably ending a 10-year fight over whether the law violated free speech rights.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to hear an appeal by former President George Bush’s administration, which asked that the court overturn a lower court’s ruling against enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA). In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit struck down the law, saying it was a vague and overly broad attack on free speech.
The Bush administration had asked the Supreme Court to review the 3rd Circuit’s decision, saying the law was necessary to protect children from explicit sex material online.
Civil liberties groups praised the Supreme Court’s decision to ignore the Bush administration’s request.
“For over a decade the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the Internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional,” Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a statement. “It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families.”
This is the third time the Supreme Court has declined to resurrect the law after low courts ruled against it.
“We applaud the Court’s decision [that] ends the government’s Quixotic and wasteful 10-year effort to impose an unconstitutional censorship standard on Internet content,” Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement. “Despite continuing pressure to force ever more restrictive standards on Internet content, this new political climate provides the right opportunity to say, ‘Yes we can,’ protect children online without compromising First Amendment principles.”
COPA’s restrictions applied to a variety of Web content, including pictures, recordings and writing.
COPA defined material harmful to minors as something the “average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find … is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest.” People who posted adult content without blocking minors’ access could face up to six months in prison under the law.
Opponents of the law, including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Nerve.com, Salon.com, the Urban Dictionary and the Sexual Health Network, argued the law amounted to government censorship and was so broad that it would affect many Web sites, including those that included information on sexually transmitted diseases.
Opponents of COPA have successfully challenged it in court several times. In 2000, the 3rd Circuit upheld a lower court’s injunction against the implementation of the law, and in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the injunction but sent the law back to U.S. district court. In 2003, the 3rd Circuit ruled that the law violated the U.S. Constitution.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court again looked at COPA, and it again sent the case back to district court, this time to determine whether there had been any changes in technology that affect the implementation of the law, such as whether commercial blocking software was as effective as the banned law might be.
In March 2007, a district judge once again struck down COPA, and the U.S. Department of Justice again appealed.
The Supreme Court in 1997 struck down a similar law, called Communications Decency Act (CDA), passed by Congress in 1996.