Last modified: June 13, 1996 11:30 AM PDT
CDA rejected in landmark ruling
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Nevertheless, today's ruling was an unequivocal victory for the ACLU and the more than 40 civil liberties groups, software companies, regional Internet service providers, and commercial producers of online entertainment and information. Among those joining the ACLU's challenge were the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Human Rights Watch.
"The government's asserted 'failure' of the Internet rests on the implicit premise that too much speech occurs in that medium, and that speech there is too available to the participants. This is exactly the benefit of Internet communication, however," Dalzell wrote in his opinion. "The government, therefore, implicitly asks this court to limit both the amount of speech on the Internet and the availability of that speech. This argument is profoundly repugnant to First Amendment principles."
The Communications Decency Act came into being as Section 507 of the sweeping telecommunications reform legislation now known as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Clinton on February 8. Introduced by Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska), the CDA was a response to a groundswell of concern about pornographic and otherwise questionable content now accessible to virtually anyone with a computer, including minors, from the Web.
The law imposes penalties on anyone who "knowingly...makes, creates, or solicits" and "initiates the transmission" of "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age." Those found guilty under the law could be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison and fined up to $250,000.
Members of the online community had lobbied Congress and the White House heavily to oppose the law, but their concerns about free speech were outweighed by the desire to protect children from potentially harmful content. While Clinton's decision to sign the bill with the CDA provision intact wasn't a surprise, it left many Netizens frustrated with their inability to persuade legislators that free speech on the Internet is a unique right that must be protected.
The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to rally for the cause, which meshed well with its long-standing identification with free speech issues and allowed the group to appealed to a new audience--online users--that might not otherwise agree with its positions.