Supreme Court hears arguments on Net porn law

Supreme Court hears arguments on Net porn law

The US Supreme Court listened to oral arguments Wednesday on whether to reinstate a hotly debated Internet pornography law, after three years of wrangling over whether the law violates First Amendment rights.

The court's decision could not only affect sellers of explicit material online, and their potential customers, but could ultimately set standards for Internet free speech.

The Children's Online Protection Act (COPA), which levels heavy criminal penalties against the knowing distribution of online materials deemed harmful to minors, first came under fire just days after it was passed on October 23, 1998, when opponents of the law claimed that it cast its punitive net too wide and stifled free speech on the Internet.

Privacy advocate group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) immediately filed suit, claiming that the law violates First Amendment rights to free speech and since then a string of injunctions have kept it from being enacted.

Although a federal appeals court declared that COPA stymies online speech, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court earlier this year in hopes of getting the law reinstated.

While the Justice Department argues that COPA balances adults' free speech rights with the protection of children online, opponents claim that the language is overly vague.

"We think this statute will be struck down," Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), said in a conference call following the Supreme Court hearing Wednesday. "There are less restrictive means to protect children such as blocking and filtering tools which are the only solutions with a global Internet."

The CDT is one of a handful of civil rights groups that signed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the COPA.

The law states that "whoever knowingly and with knowledgeable character of the material, in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web, makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors shall be fined not more than US$50,000, imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both."

Opponents have said that not only is the use of the word "commercial" vague and open to interpretation, the law could also potentially be applied to content such as art and health.

"The Internet industry is concerned generally with anything that will interfere with the vibrancy of the Internet," Jodie Kelley, counsel on a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the Information Technology Association of America, and the Computer Communications Industry Association, said during the CDT conference call.

"What the government tried to do here would potentially cripple the Internet without bringing added protection (to children)," Kelley said.

The CDT and other groups are lobbying for the use of Web filtering and blocking tools to shield kids from explicit content rather than for decency standards, which vary from community to community.

Using decency standards to protect kids requires restricting the free speech of adults, Berman said.

"That is unconstitutional and suspect," he said.

Representatives for the DOJ were not immediately available to comment on the case.

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