Last modified: June 13, 1996 11:30 AM PDT
CDA rejected in landmark ruling
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The ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the CDA five minutes after the law was signed, arguing that the bill is unconstitutional because the term indecent describes a standard too vague for law enforcement and because the Internet is too large and complex to police effectively--both points that are affirmed by today's decision.
Moreover, the ACLU argued that the CDA treats the Internet as if it were a broadcast medium, adding that Web sites are more akin to printed publications and should therefore receive correspondent protection.
"This decision reflects an enormously sophisticated understanding of the Internet, and I think it will guide all future courts in deciding a whole variety of issues that apply to the net," said Christopher Hansen, legal counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in ACLU vs. Reno. "Most importantly, it sets us on a path toward free speech on the Internet."
Justice Department lawyers called only two witnesses to rebut the ACLU's arguments, choosing to focus primarily on demonstrating that great quantities of prurient content are easily accessible to minors on the Internet. Supporters of the CDA have argued that the threat of punishment is the only way to prevent unscrupulous pornographers from taking advantage of the medium, a need that they contend is sufficiently compelling to outweigh free speech protections.
The government argued further that the Internet is most comparable to the broadcast medium, which is heavily regulated to control content that might be seen by minors. But the court ruled in the ACLU's favor on this point as well, concluding that the Internet is a unique medium--with the closest parallel being neither print nor broadcast, but the telephone system.
"Internet communication, while unique, is more akin to telephone communication...than to broadcasting...because as with the telephone an Internet user must act affirmatively and deliberately to retrieve specific information online," Sloviter stated. "It is highly unlikely that a very young child will be randomly 'surfing' the Web and come across indecent or patently offensive material."
In addition, the judges came down squarely on the side of the ACLU on both the legal and technological aspects of the arguments, finding the term indecent too vague to apply to a medium that is international in scope and impossible to control.