Courts rule on laws restricting Internet content

A federal law that criminalizes the commercial transmission of materialdeemed harmful to minors over the Web is unconstitutional, according toa unanimous ruling by a federal appeals court in June.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuitagreed with a lower court judge. The judges were particularly concernedthat the statute involved a “contemporary community standards” clause todetermine whether certain material should be considered harmful. Judgesuse the “community standards” test when deciding whether material is legallyobscene. Because information on the Internet is available in any community,it would be impossible to use such a test for every community.

The law, struck down in ACLU v Reno, 217 F.3d 162 (3rd Cir. 2000),made online transmission, for commercial purposes, of material harmfulto minors illegal. It was Congress’ second attempt to censor the Internet.The Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, was struck down by theU.S. Supreme Court on grounds that it violated the First Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of 17other groups and individuals.

At press time, the government was deciding whether to let the decisionstand, appeal it to the Supreme Court or go back to the district courtand ask for a full trial.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in State v. Weidner, 611N.W. 2d 684 (Wisc. 2000), that a state law criminalizing the sending ofharmful material to minors over the Internet is unconstitutional becausethe state was not required to prove that the defendant knew he was communicatingwith a minor. The court said knowledge cannot be presumed when Internetcommunication is at issue.

In Virginia, a law that prohibits state employees from lookingat sexually explicit Web sites on government-owned computers does not violatethe First Amendment, according to a ruling handed down by a federal appealscourt in late June.

The 8-4 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuitin Urofsky v. Gilmore, No. 98-1481, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 14484 (4thCir. 2000), overturned a U.S. District Court ruling that said the law wasunconstitutional.

Six professors at public colleges and universities in Virginia challengedthe law, saying it violated their academic freedom. The court agreed withthe state, ruling the law would guard against a sexually hostile workingenvironment and discourage public employees from wasting time.