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Important Cases: Reno v. ACLU

In 1997, the internet was just beginning: the explosion of mass information and connections had not been unleashed yet. During this time, the word “cyberporn” became a phrase involved within multiple high profile stories in the media.

At this time, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. This act made it a crime to transmit “indecent” or “patently offensive” material over the internet to anyone younger than 18 years old.

The ACLU filed a law suit arguing that this law violated the First Amendment freedom of speech protection. Although the act was set in place to protect minors from offensive and pornographic Internet material, the language used in the act was so broad that is could also be applied to non-pornographic content, such as information about birth control and contraceptives. Education and availability of information about types of contraceptives is important for young people, and the Internet is the most massive information database readily available to teens.

This Court had to reconsider what kind of protection should be granted for Internet content. Broadcast and print media is more stringently regulated, but the Internet is so extensive that it is difficult to control, even to this day.

The Court ruled for the ACLU, stating the Internet is such a vast “marketplace of ideas” that it deserves the highest level of First Amendment protection. The Court also ruled that any restrictions on content requires a compelling reason and to be narrowly tailored to the specific content that is being restricted.

This case was the first major Supreme Court ruling on the regulation of content distributed via the Internet.

Reno v. ACLU

521 U.S. 844 (1997)

Two provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA or Act) seek to protect minors from harmful material on the Internet, an international network of interconnected computers that enables millions of people to communicate with one another in “cyberspace” and to access vast amounts of information from around the world. Title 47 U. S. C. A. § 223(a)(1)(B)(ii) (Supp. 1997) criminalizes the “knowing” transmission of “obscene or indecent” messages to any recipient under 18 years of age. Section 223(d) prohibits the “knowin[g]” sending or displaying to a person under 18 of any message “that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” Affirmative defenses are provided for those who take “good faith, . . . effective . . . actions” to restrict access by minors to the prohibited communications, § 223(e)(5)(A), and those who restrict such access by requiring certain designated forms of age proof, such as a verified credit card or an adult identification number,  §223(e)(5)(B). A number of plaintiffs filed suit challenging the constitutionality of §§ 223(a)(1) and 223(d). After making extensive findings of fact, a three judge District Court convened pursuant to the Act entered a preliminary injunction against enforcement of both challenged provisions. The court’s judgment enjoins the Government from enforcing § 223(a)(1)(B)’s prohibitions insofar as they relate to “indecent” communications, but expressly preserves the Government’s right to investigate and prosecute the obscenity or child pornography activities prohibited therein. The injunction against enforcement of § 223(d) is unqualified because that section contains no separate reference to obscenity or child pornography. The Government appealed to this Court under the Act’s special review provisions, arguing that the District Court erred in holding that the CDA violated both the First Amendment because it is overbroad and the Fifth Amendment because it is vague.

Read our blog post about Catfishing and identity protection on the Internet.

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