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Child Online Protection Act ruled unconstitutional

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  1. Content Restrictions

    NMU         THIRD CIRCUIT         Broadcasting         Jun 28, 2000    

Child Online Protection Act ruled unconstitutional

  • A federal appellate panel upheld an injunction against enforcement of a law designed to protect children on the Internet because it would force web site owners to restrict much of their speech.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3d Cir.) ruled that the Child Online Protection Act cannot withstand constitutional muster.

The act was passed by Congress in 1998, after the Supreme Court held that Congress’ first attempt at regulating the internet — the Communications Decency Act — was unconstitutionally vague. In drafting the second law, Congress said that it had “address[ed] the specific concerns raised by the Supreme Court” when it struck down the CDA in 1997.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing a coalition of 17 groups and businesses, including an online art store, a gay and lesbian online service, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, petitioned for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the new law after it was enacted. The injunction was granted by the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The Justice Department then appealed to the Third Circuit.

“The overbreadth of COPA’s definition of ‘harmful to minors’ applying a ‘contemporary community standards’ clause . . . so concerns us that we are persuaded that this aspect of COPA . . . must lead inexorably to a holding of a likelihood of unconstitutionally of the entire COPA statute,” the court wrote.

The court held that because one community’s standard of obscenity differs another community’s standard, an undue burden is placed upon internet publishers to meet and adhere to each community’s standard. That undue burden infringes upon the First Amendment rights of internet publishers.

Though the appellate court expressed a distaste for striking down a law that is intended to protect children, it also stated its ruling was “right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result.”

(ACLU v. Reno; ACLU Attorney: Douglas Griffin, New York) JM

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