High court to hear case that could determine minors' rights

WASHINGTON,  D.C. — For the second time in two years, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a law that punishes commercial Web site operators who make sexual material deemed “harmful” available online to minors younger than 17.

The case, Ashcroft v. ACLU II, questions whether the 1998 Child Online Protection Act restricts adults from viewing or purchasing constitutionally protected sexual material online. An important issue in the case is whether minors have complete First Amendment protection. 

COPA calls for first-time offenders to face up to six months in jail and $50,000 in fines. However, COPA has never been enforced because of pending legal actions.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed its lawsuit on behalf of online publishers and artists who contend that COPA unconstitutionally restricts the speech of adults who want to browse or purchase items online.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled twice that the law violates the First Amendment.  

Neither Third Circuit ruling determined whether minors have complete First Amendment protection. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court will rule on the case’s implications for minors’ First Amendment rights.

The Justice Department appealed the latter of the two rulings to the Supreme Court in August, arguing that children are unprotected from online pornography. 

When the Supreme Court reviewed COPA in Ashcroft v. ACLU in May 2002, the justices ruled that using “community standards” to determine permissible content was constitutional. 

The Supreme Court will hear the case in early 2004 and a decision on the law could be made by the end of June.