Federal court blocks state Internet ban


Judges rule New Mexico's 'harmful to minors' law prohibits protected speech





\nCOLORADO -- A federal appeals court in Denver prohibited\nNew Mexico officials from enforcing the state's ban on Internet\nspeech deemed "harmful to minors" in November, saying\nthe law "effectively bans speech that is constitutionally\nprotected for adults."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld a preliminary\ninjunction issued by a U.S. District Court judge in June because\nit determined that the American Civil Liberties Union and the\n19 other plaintiffs in the case were likely to succeed on the\nmerits of their claim that the state law violated the First Amendment.\n

The ACLU was joined in the suit by organizations such as Art\non the Net, Feminist.com, OBGYN.net, the Sexual Health Institute,\nthe Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Association of American\nPublishers, the New Mexico Library Association and the Recording\nIndustry Association of America.

Organizations such as OBGYN.net and the Sexual Health Institute\nfeared that the law, which created criminal sanctions for the\nintentional dissemination by computer of material to a minor that\n"depicts actual or simulated nudity, sexual intercourse or\nany other sexual conduct," would outlaw sexually explicit\nmedical information on their Web sites.

The state had argued that its law only banned online material\nconsidered "harmful to minors." But the court ruled\nthat the law was overly broad and said "the statute, as written\n... unconstitutionally burdens otherwise protected adult communication\non the Internet."

In addition to finding that the New Mexico ban would prohibit\nspeech that is protected for adults, the court ruled that the\nlaw "interferes with the rights of minors to access and view\nmaterial that to them is protected by the First Amendment."\n

The court's ruling is the first federal appeals court decision\non the constitutionality of a state ban on Internet speech considered\nharmful to minors.

"This ruling tells state lawmakers in no uncertain terms\nthat they should stop passing and defending criminal bans on protected\nspeech," said Ann Beeson, an ACLU attorney who argued the\ncase before the Tenth Circuit, in a press release.

According to the ACLU, at least 13 states have passed Internet\ncensorship laws in the past four years.

In November, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard\narguments over a federal law banning material considered "harmful\nto minors" on the Internet.

The federal government asked the court to reconsider the decision\nof a U.S. District Court judge who issued a preliminary injunction\npreventing government officials from enforcing the ban.

The ACLU and 16 other plaintiffs claimed that the "Child\nOnline Protection Act," a federal law passed by Congress\nin 1998, is unconstitutional because it restricts a broad range\nof speech that is valuable to adults.

The law, passed by Congress after the U.S. Supreme Court struck\ndown an earlier version of it -- the Communications Decency Act\n-- in 1997, makes it a federal crime to use the World Wide Web\nto communicate "for commercial purposes" material considered\n"harmful to minors."

In Virginia, an ACLU attorney representing six college professors\nargued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit\nthat a law barring state employees from accessing sexually explicit\nmaterials on computers at work is unconstitutional.

A U.S. District Court judge had declared the law unconstitutional\nin 1998, but a three-judge panel of the court of appeals overturned\nthe district judge's ruling. The professors appealed to the full,\n12-judge court, which heard arguments in the case in September.\n

The ACLU is also challenging a Michigan law banning Internet\nspeech considered harmful to minors in the U.S. Court of Appeals\nfor the Sixth Circuit. Argument dates have not been scheduled\nyet.\n


reports, Winter 1999-2000