From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 44.
The Supreme Court began considering the constitutionality of online pornography regulations again this term, hearing oral arguments in one case challenging a federal law forbidding virtual porn images of children and another, the Child Online Protection Act.
In Free Speech Coalition v. Reno, a group of adult entertainment producers challenged a law passed in 1996 to deal with the manipulation of graphic images to make it appear that children were involved in sexual situations when only adults or computer images were used.
The adult entertainment group argued that the law stepped beyond efforts to protect actual children and into unconstitutional regulation of adult speech.
The Child Online Protection Act, the subject of the second pornography case before the court, prohibits any commercial Web site operator from making any material deemed “harmful to minors” available to anyone under 17 years of age. Violators could face up to six months in jail and up to $50,000 in fines.
In Ashcroft v. ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups contend COPA treads upon the First Amendment rights of Web site operators by forcing them to censor themselves and provide material on the Internet that adheres to the sensibilities of the nation’s most sensitive community.
Decisions in both cases are expected before the end of the current term in June.
Congress first attempted to curb indecent material on the Internet with the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prohibited the transmission of such materials to minors. But a unanimous Supreme Court in the 1997 case Reno v. ACLU struck down provisions of the act as unconstitutional.
While the court agreed that the government held a compelling interest to keep indecent material from children, it ruled that officials had not devised a narrowly tailored measure to do so. Specifically, the court said the law’s “contemporary community standards” would subject the Internet to standards of the most restrictive community. — PT