Online protection act blocked by federal judge
PENNSYLVANIA–Citing First Amendment concerns, a federal judge in Philadelphia in early February granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of a law intended to protect children from pornography on the Internet.
Civil liberties organizations and commercial websites, some featuring sexually explicit information, fear the law would infringe upon their First Amendment rights and diminish their ability to freely disseminate products and information on the Internet.
U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. granted those groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, a preliminary injunction forbidding U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the government from enforcing the Child Online Protection Act on the day the temporary restraining order was scheduled to expire.
The act would force commercial website operators to collect some form of age verification such as a credit card number or an adult access code before permitting access to material deemed “harmful to minors” by community standards. The penalty for an offense includes a $50,000 fine and six months in prison.
Reed articulated the difficulty in ruling against a law with such a “compelling interest.” However, he noted, “Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection.” He said there might be less restrictive means, such as use of filtering software, that could accomplish the same goal.
Reed agreed with plaintiffs’ arguments that the act potentially violates the First Amendment and may be unconstitutionally vague. “The First Amendment was designed to prevent the majority, through acts of Congress, from silencing those who would express unpopular or unconventional views,” Reed said.
A number of the organizations who joined to sue the government said they were pleased with the ruling.
As an author of gay literature, plaintiff Patricia Nell Warren of Wildcat Press expressed concern that, “There are religious-minded people who would like to see all gay literature on the Internet go away.” She also warned against the potential domino effect of the law. If a court could determine that a book on the Internet was indecent for minors, it could lead to censorship in schools and libraries, she said.
The online regulations could also affect businesses such as Condomania, a plaintiff in the case, which describes itself as a company committed to safe sex education and outreach that sells condoms online. Company founder Adam Glickman said the law could force him out of business by mandating age verification from teenagers who might be afraid or unable to access the site if forced to give a credit card number or other form of verification.
The Child Online Protection Act was Congress’ second attempt to curb pornography in cyberspace. Congress enacted the act after the Supreme Court struck down portions of its precursor, the Communications Decency Act, as unconstitutional in June 1997. That act sought to ban all “indecent” and “patently offensive” material from the Internet.
“COPA doesn’t correct the problems of the CDA,” said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center and co- counsel in the case. Sobel said he expects a third round of legislation and litigation if the court’s decision is ultimately upheld. (American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno; Attorney for ACLU: Ann Beeson, New York)