November 27, 2001 2:30 PM PST

Net porn law heads to high court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether it should reinstate a controversial online porn law.

The high court will hear arguments related to the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a law that was passed three years ago but never took effect. COPA would make it illegal for companies to sell sexually explicit material to minors and would impose steep prison sentences and fines on violators.

A federal appeals court had blocked the law on grounds that it would suppress Internet speech and outlaw sites covering health, books, art and other areas. The Justice Department appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court earlier this year in an attempt to revive the law.

With Wednesday's hearing, COPA becomes the latest online porn law to test the First Amendment in the high court. In 1997, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association challenged the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a bill that would have made it a felony to deliver indecent material to minors over the Internet. The Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled that CDA was unconstitutional and overturned major portions of the bill, saying such content is considered protected speech for adults.

The outcome of Wednesday's hearing could have wide ramifications for the future of cyberspace and free speech. Some legal experts expect the courts to also strike down COPA, which is known as "the son of CDA." Owen Seitel, a partner at the law firm Idell Berman & Seitel, which is not involved in the lawsuit, said COPA is constitutionally "overly broad" in its effort to protect children from what legislators deem to be harmful speech.

COPA "ends up applying to speech which is useful to an adult audience and basically prevents that adult audience from obtaining that information," Seitel said. "Anytime that you have legislation that restricts speech in any way, it's going to be strictly construed, meaning the court is going to be very careful to ensure that any restrictions on speech are as narrow as possible. And I just feel this piece of legislation fails that task."

The ACLU--which represents Web sites for bookstores, art galleries, sex advice columns, online news organizations and other plaintiffs in the case--will urge the justices to once again reject the law. The advocacy group says it sees constitutional flaws in COPA that are identical to those found in CDA.

ACLU attorney Ann Beeson, who will be arguing the case before the court, said the law suppresses "socially valuable speech" that adults have the right to express. The only way to avoid criminal prosecution under the law, she says, is to set up screens such as credit card requirements or adult access codes. But screens could deter all users--both minors and adults--from accessing content that would otherwise be free.

"The Web provides access to more speech by more speakers than any other communication medium in history," Beeson said. "COPA threatens to transform this dynamic medium into one...that is only fit for children."

Still, others hope the justices will rule in favor of the law. Donna Rice Hughes, who runs Protectkids.com, said COPA is "a rifle shot approach" that holds U.S. pornographers accountable for their commercial Web sites and shields children from harmful material.

"The law is clear; it's worked in print for years," Hughes said. "COPA essentially extends those laws in the material world to the cyberworld."

News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.

 

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