WASHINGTON (AP) — In its first free-speech ruling for the computer age, the Supreme Court said Thursday that a congressional attempt to keep pornography off the Internet violated the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The government cannot limit adults to seeing “only what is fit for children,” the justices said.
Congress’ 1996 legislation would have made it a crime to put “indecent” or “patently offensive” words or pictures online where they could be found by children. Violators could have been sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The law was challenged by many groups, including civil libertarians, computer companies and librarians. Attorney Bruce Ennis, who argued the case for those groups, called the court’s 7-2 ruling “the legal birth certificate for the Internet.” Computer and civil liberties groups hailed the ruling as extending free-speech protections toward the 21st century.
But backers of the law complained the court’s action leaves children vulnerable to lewd words and pictures easily obtained online.
The court’s vote affirmed a Pennsylvania court ruling that struck down the 1996 law. Even the two dissenting justices agreed that parts of the measure improperly restricted communication among adults.
Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens noted an earlier ruling said a restriction on speech “amounted to burning the house to roast the pig.” He said the attempt by Congress to keep certain material off the computer network, “casting a far darker shadow over free speech, threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community.”
Supporters of the law said the ruling would harm parents’ efforts to protect their children.
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who sponsored the law, said the justices are “telling parents to abandon any hope of a decent public culture.”
The White House said President Clinton will meet with industry leaders, parents and teachers next month in search of a solution.