WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a landmark victory for on-line speech rights, the Supreme Court today ruled unanimously to strike down two provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which banned the transmission of “obscene or indecent” messages over the Internet to anyone under the age of 18. In doing so, the Court refused to accept the government’s argument that minors could always be prohibited from gaining access to “indecent” or “patently offensive” material — even where such material might contain otherwise valauable information.
A Philidelphia federal court declared the law unconstitutional last year after organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and the Journalism Education Association contested the law.
In Reno v. ACLU, the Court upheld the lower court ruling and focused on the broad terms in which the act was written. In the Court’s opinion Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effects on free speech.”
While accepting the government’s interest in protecting minors from harmful materials, the Court said it was not willing to accept the government’s argument that the First Amendment would allow a “blanket prohibition on all ‘indecent’ and ‘patently offensive’ messages communicated to a 17-year old — no matter how much value the messages may contain and regardless of parental approval.”
The Court distinguished this case from a 1968 Supreme Court case in which it had ruled that minors do not necessarily have the same First Amendment right to see or read material as adults. In that case it had upheld a New York law that prohibited selling material deemed “obscene to minors” to anyone under 17 years old.
By contrast, in striking down the CDA, the Court said the CDA went too far. Unlike the New York law, which restricted access to advertising material, the CDA applied to all forms of speech. Further, the Court noted that the wording in the Communications Decency Act failed to exclude material that could have “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” to minors. Finally, the CDA restricted access not just to minors — but to their parents and other adults as well. Such restrictions were simply too broad to get past the First Amendment, the Court said.
Not all of the justices agreed with the majority’s view on this issue.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist concurred with the ruling but dissented in part of the Court’s opinion.
“The CDA does not burden a substantial amount of minors’ constitutionally protected speech,” O’Connor wrote.
“In my view, the universe of speech constitutionally protected as to minors but banned by the CDA — i.e., the universe of material that is ‘patently offensive,’ but which nevertheless has some redeeming value for minors or does not appeal to their prurient interest — is a very small one,” O’Connor wrote.
Opponents of the law cheered the Supreme Court’s decision and said it will help clear up the confusion about Internet censorship.
Candace Perkins Bowen, former president of the Journalism Education Association, which was a plaintiff in the case, said the victory will help students continue to enjoy free access to the Internet.
“Only by allowing student reporters open access to information — on the Internet and elsewhere — can we help them develop the skills they need to be critical thinkers and to communicate important information to their teen audiences,” Perkins Bowen said.
She added that while the Court’s decision was definitive, proponents of the act will continue to fight, and other organizations are still developing Internet regulation policies.
“This is the big deal, but the small battles are going to continue in the schools,” she said.