Reno v. ACLU

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In 1996, the Internet was in its infancy. The reverberations from the explosion of information over the Internet were just beginning to be felt, and "cyberporn" became a catchphrase in several high profile stories in the media. That year, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to transmit "indecent" or "patently offensive" material over the Web to anyone younger than 18 years of age.

The ACLU filed suit, arguing that the new law violated the First Amendment free speech protections. Although the goal of the law was to protect minors from pornography, the language was so broad that it applied to all kinds of non-pornographic content, like information about birth control.

The case marked the first time the Court considered what kind of protection to grant Internet content. In the past, the Court had allowed more stringent regulation of broadcast media than print media, but what was the Web?

The Court ruled nine to zero for the ACLU. The Court said the Internet was so expansive and so much of a "marketplace of ideas" that it deserved the highest level of First Amendment protection. The Court ruled that any restriction on content would require a compelling reason and would have to be narrowly tailored, and that the Act at issue did not pass that test.

 

 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.

Held: The CDA's "indecent transmission" and "patently offensive display" provisions abridge "the freedom of speech" protected by the First Amendment. Pp. 17-40.

929 F. Supp. 824, affirmed.

To read the rest of the opinion in Reno v. ACLU, go to Nolo's US Supreme Court Center.

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