Judge halts enforcement of new federal Internet censorship law

PENNSYLVANIA — In what many civil liberties groups are hailing as a victory for Internet freedoms, a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, which was recently enacted by Congress.

The ruling, handed down on Feb. 1 by U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr., prohibits the U.S. Justice Department from prosecuting anyone under the COPA. The injunction reaffirms temporary restraining orders that were issued by the judge in November and December.

The injunction was issued as a result of an effort by civil liberties and Internet freedom groups to challenge the law on grounds that it violated First Amendment rights to freely publish controversial material on the Internet.

The COPA, which was signed into law Oct. 21, imposes harsh criminal penalties against commercial Web sites that disseminate material that is, as stated in the act, “harmful to minors.” Violators under the act could be fined up to $50,000 and be imprisoned for up to six months.

The legislation represents an effort by Congress to solve the constitutional defects in the Communications Decency Act (CDA), the first attempt to regulate content on the Internet which was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court’s 1997 ACLU v. Reno decision.

The 17 plaintiffs challenging the COPA in the case being called “ACLU v. Reno II” include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Internet Content Coalition and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In their complaint, the ACLU said that the law failed to define the relevant age of the minor for purposes of determining whether specific material is “harmful to minors.” Judge Reed agreed that the law could not be enforced without running afoul of the First Amendment.

“While the public certainly has an interest in protecting its minors, the public interest is not served by the enforcement of an unconstitutional law,” the court’s decision said. “Indeed, to the extent that other members of the public who are not parties to this lawsuit may be effected by this statute, the interest of the public is served by preservation of the status quo until such time that this Court may ultimately rule on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims at trial.”

President of the Journalism Education Association, H.L. Hall, said school administrators who want to be in control of the content of school-affiliated Web sites, including online student newspapers, will look at the law as a way to justify their censoring actions.

“This law needs to be challenged, in part, because it infringes on student journalists’ rights to use the Internet for valid research,” he said. “The government does not dictate to young people what television shows they can watch, so why should it dictate to them what areas of the Internet they may or may not access.”

The Journalism Education Association was a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act and signed a letter which the Internet Freedom of Expression Alliance authored in opposition to the COPA.

“If the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional, this law seems to be as well,” Hall said.

The government has 60 days to decide if it will take the matter to a full trial or appeal the preliminary injunction.