Supreme Court strikes down CDA


Communications Decency Act called overbroad and vague





WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Supreme Court for the first time reached into the confusing area of the Internet and kept it clear of roadblocks by voting 7-2 to strike down two provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

The law, signed in 1996 by President Clinton, was seen by educators as a major threat to students’ access to the Internet by banning the “‘knowing’ transmission of ‘obscene or indecent’ messages” to minors.

Obscene material is already prohibited under existing laws. Indecent material could have included everything from pornography to four-letter words.

The CDA also prohibited the displaying of “patently offensive” material to anyone under the age of 18.

The Court upheld the decision made last year by a Philadelphia federal court. Organizations fighting against the law included the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and the Journalism Education Association.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the Court’s opinion for Reno v. ACLU, 117 S. Ct. 2329 (1997), “The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effects on free speech.”

Unlike other laws restricting questionable material, the wording in the Communications Decency Act failed to exclude material that could have “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Ann Beeson, attorney for the ACLU in the case, said the decision to strike down the law was not unexpected, and she was pleased that the opinion affirmed First Amendment rights.

“It couldn’t have been any stronger an endorsement for free speech protection on the Internet,” Beeson said.

The Court said it does realize the government’s interest in protecting minors from harmful material. But the opinion questioned not only the vagueness of what is “indecent,” but also how intrusive the Internet actually is in homes, and the possibility of the statute indirectly restricting speech among adults.

“These limitations [in the CDA] must inevitably curtail a significant amount of adult communication on the Internet,” the Court wrote.

The Court was unanimous in ruling that the law was unconstitutional, but Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissented in part of the opinion and stated that creation of “adult zones” on the Internet “can be constitutionally sound.”

But 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 access to a free 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.


Fall 1997, reports