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Federal Court Blocks Enforcement of Net Censorship Law

November 20, 1998

PHILADELPHIA - In the first constitutional test of a new Internet censorship law, a federal judge on November 19 issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The ruling came in a legal challenge to the statute filed by EPIC, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of a broad coalition of Web publishers and users. COPA, enacted in the final days of the 105th Congress as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Act, imposes criminal penalties against any "commercial" website that makes material that is "harmful to minors" available to anyone under 17 years of age. Unless enjoined, the statute would have gone into effect on November 20.

At the end of an all-day court hearing, U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr. enjoined Attorney General Janet Reno and the Justice Department from "enforcing or prosecuting" any conduct under COPA for at least ten days, until the issues in the lawsuit can be further litigated. Over the objections of the government, Judge Reed extended the coverage of the TRO to anyone posting material on the World Wide Web, not just the named plaintiffs. The TRO also precludes retroactive enforcement of COPA, should the law eventually be upheld, for material posted while the restraining order is in effect.

In support of its case, the coalition presented the testimony of two plaintiffs -- Norman Laurila, founder of A Different Light Bookstores, and David Talbot, CEO of Salon Magazine. Both described the negative impact COPA would have on their ability to make controversial material available at their websites. They stressed the importance of anonymity on the Internet and told the court that age verification requirements (which would protect sites from prosecution under the law) would -- even if practical -- substantially diminish the number of visitors to their sites.

Before announcing his decision, Judge Reed noted that the case involves a "clash" between First Amendment rights and the nation's responsibility to protect children. Although he stressed that today's ruling was not a "final order on the merits," the judge expressly found that the plaintiffs appear likely to prevail in their constitutional challenge. He also noted that the TRO does not prevent enforcement of existing laws dealing with obscenity or child pornography.

The court ruling is the latest setback for Internet censorship proponents. In June 1996, the same federal court in Philadelphia struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a decision unanimously upheld last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. In enacting COPA, Congressional supporters claimed that the new law corrected the constitutional defects of the CDA. Several federal courts have also found state laws seeking to regulate online content unconstitutional.


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