Courts rule on laws restricting Internet content

Appeals panel sides with ACLU in suit against government

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with a lower court judge. The judges were particularly concerned that the statute involved a "contemporary community standards" clause to determine whether certain material should be considered harmful. Judges use the "community standards" test when deciding whether material is legally obscene. 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 harmful to minors illegal. It was Congress' second attempt to censor the Internet. The Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that it violated the First Amendment.

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

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

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

In Virginia, a law that prohibits state employees from looking at sexually explicit Web sites on government-owned computers does not violate the First Amendment, according to a ruling handed down by a federal appeals court in late June.

The 8-4 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Urofsky v. Gilmore, No. 98-1481, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 14484 (4th Cir. 2000), overturned a U.S. District Court ruling that said the law was unconstitutional.

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

Fall 2000, reports