Supreme Court To Consider Internet Pornography Law; Critics Say Law Could Block Access to Sexual Health Information
The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a challenge to the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law intended to block minors from accessing "sexually explicit" material on the Internet but that critics say could prevent teenagers and adults from accessing sexual health information, the Los Angeles Times reports (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 10/15). COPA makes it a crime for a commercial Web site to post material that is "harmful to minors" in a place where people under age 17 can gain access to it, unless the site makes a "good faith effort" to screen out all but adult users, according to the Washington Post (Lane, Washington Post, 10/15). First-time violators of COPA could be sentenced to six months in jail and a $50,000 fine, according to the AP/Miami Herald (AP/Miami Herald, 10/15). The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March ruled the law unconstitutional for the second time, but the Bush administration appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The circuit court initially struck down the law, which has never taken effect, for relying on "community standards" to determine what amounted to sexually explicit material, a stipulation that the court said would give the "most conservative community in the country a veto over all others," according to the Post. The Bush administration then appealed to the Supreme Court, which was divided on the issue and decided to send the case back to the 3rd Circuit for reconsideration (Washington Post, 10/15). In March, the 3rd Circuit said that COPA is "too broad" and would block too much material that would be appropriate for adults, according to the New York Times. The court also said that the law's definition of a minor as someone from birth to age 17 is too vague to meet the First Amendment requirement of "narrow tailoring" for speech restrictions (Greenhouse, New York Times, 10/15). Oral arguments in the case -- Ashcroft v. ACLU -- will be heard in early 2004 and a decision is expected by July 2004 (Washington Post, 10/15).
Law Could Block Safe Sex, Gynecological Information
The American Civil Liberties Union, the online magazine Salon and OBGYN.net, a women's health site, have challenged COPA, saying that it would force Web publishers to give up some of their constitutional rights to "communicate adult material to adults," according to the Post (Washington Post, 10/15). The ACLU says that the law could block Web sites that provide explicit gynecological, safe sex or sexually transmitted disease prevention information, according to the AP/Herald (AP/Miami Herald, 10/15). Other opponents of the law say that it "encompass[es] a huge amount of material," including sites that offer sex advice to HIV-positive individuals, according to the Los Angeles Times. Law opponents have suggested that parents buy software that would filter out sexually explicit material (Los Angeles Times, 10/15). Solicitor General Ted Olson said in a court brief that COPA is constitutional because it only targets "commercial pornographers," according to USA Today (Willing, USA Today, 10/15). Government lawyers argue that the law is the equivalent of "blinder racks" that shield the covers of pornographic magazines in stores, according to the Los Angeles Times. The attorneys said that there is "no alternative" to COPA to protect minors from commercial pornography on the Internet. Supporters of the measure said that Web site publishers could protect themselves from prosecution under COPA by limiting access to materials to adults by requiring a credit card or adult-access code, according to the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, 10/15).