Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Supreme Court blocks porn law

FREE SPEECH The 1998 law, which would have jailed pornographers if kids saw their product, suffered a big blow from the court in another decision backing civil liberties


The US Supreme Court has blocked a law meant to shield Web-surfing children from dirty pictures and online come-ons, ruling that the law would also cramp the free-speech rights of adults to see and buy what they want on the Internet.

Technology such as filtering software may better protect children from unsavory material than such laws, the court said in a 5 to 4 ruling on Tuesday.

"Filters are less restrictive" and thus pose less risk of muzzling free speech, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "They impose selective restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restrictions at the source."

Numerous software companies market products that parents can install on a home computer to sift out objectionable material. Filtering software tries to block Web sites based on preferences set by the user.

The 1998 law, signed by then president Bill Clinton and backed by the current Bush administration, would require adults to use access codes or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online, and it would punish violators with fines up to US$50,000 or jail time.

The law has been on hold during the court challenge brought by artists, bookstores, an online sex therapist, a gynecological information site and others. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued the law could make criminals out of anyone who offered racy or explicit material to adults.

Ashcroft v. ACLU was the last of nearly 80 cases decided in a busy court term that ended on Tuesday. The year's marquee cases involving presidential power to deal with terror suspects were announced on Monday, and for the most part represented a setback for the Bush administration.

In Tuesday's pornography ruling, the court majority said that the federal judge who initially blocked the Child Online Protection Act six years ago rightly found that the law was probably unconstitutional.

"There is a potential for extraordinary harm and a serious chill upon protected speech" if the law takes effect, Kennedy wrote. He was joined by justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas.

In dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer said the law should be upheld.

The high court tossed the case back to lower courts in Philadelphia, but the next step was not immediately clear. If the government chooses to defend the law, a trial could provide fresher information than was available to the Supreme Court, Kennedy said.

"The factual record does not reflect current technological reality -- a serious flaw in any case involving the Internet," he wrote.

Material that is indecent but not obscene is protected by the Constitution's First Amendment. Adults may see or purchase it, but children may not. That is a rule difficult to enforce in the world of the Internet.

Most Web sites, chat rooms and other Internet venues are available to adults and minors alike.

Congress has tried repeatedly to find a way to shield youngsters from the Web's dark side without running afoul of the First Amendment.

The justices unanimously struck down the first version of a child-protection law passed in 1996, just as the Internet was becoming a common means of communication, research and entertainment.

Congress responded by passing the 1998 law, saying it was tailored to go after pornographers or others who place material deemed harmful to minors within their easy reach.

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