Preliminary Injunction Against COPA in ACLU v. Reno II




in her official capacity as Attorney General of the United States. 


NO. 98-5591 


M E M O R A N D U M 

Reed, J. February 1, 1999


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." Although there is no complete consensus on the issue, most courts and commentators theorize that the importance of protecting freedom of speech is to foster the marketplace of ideas. If speech, even unconventional speech that some find lacking in substance or offensive, is allowed to compete unrestricted in the marketplace of ideas, truth will be discovered. Indeed, the First Amendment was designed to prevent the majority, through acts of Congress, from silencing those who would express unpopular or unconventional views. 

Despite the protection provided by the First Amendment, unconventional speakers are often limited in their ability to promote such speech in the marketplace by the costs or logistics of reaching the masses, hence, the adage that freedom of the press is limited to those who own one. In the medium of cyberspace, however, anyone can build a soap box out of web pages and speak her mind in the virtual village green to an audience larger and more diverse than any the Framers could have imagined. In many respects, unconventional messages compete equally with the speech of mainstream speakers in the marketplace of ideas that is the Internet, certainly more than in most other media. 

But with freedom come consequences. Many of the same characteristics which make cyberspace ideal for First Amendment expression -- ease of participation and diversity of content and speakers -- make it a potentially harmful media for children. A child with minimal knowledge of a computer, the ability to operate a browser, and the skill to type a few simple words may be able to access sexual images and content over the World Wide Web. For example, typing the word "dollhouse" or "toys" into a typical Web search engine will produce a page of links, some of which connect to what would be considered by many to be pornographic Web sites. These Web sites offer "teasers," free sexually explicit images and animated graphic image files designed to entice a user to pay a fee to browse the whole site. 

Intending to address the problem of children's access to these teasers, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act ("COPA"), which was to go into effect on November 29, 1998. On October 22, 1998, the plaintiffs, including, among others, Web site operators and content providers, filed this lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of COPA under the First and Fifth Amendments and seeking injunctive relief from its enforcement. Two diametric interests -- the constitutional right of freedom of speech and the interest of Congress, and indeed society, in protecting children from harmful materials -- are in tension in this lawsuit. 

This is not the first attempt of Congress to regulate content on the Internet. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996 ("CDA") which purported to regulate the access of minors to "indecent" and "patently offensive" speech on the Internet. The CDA was struck down by the Supreme Court in ACLU v. Reno, 117 S. Ct. 2329 (1997) ("Reno I") as violative of the First Amendment. COPA represents congressional efforts to remedy the constitutional defects in the CDA. 

Plaintiffs attack COPA on several grounds: (1) that it is invalid on its face and as applied to them under the First Amendment for burdening speech that is constitutionally protected for adults, (2) that it is invalid on its face for violating the First Amendment rights of minors, and (3) that it is unconstitutionally vague under the First and Fifth Amendments. The parties presented evidence and argument on the motion of plaintiffs for a temporary restraining order on November 19, 1998. This Court entered a temporary restraining order on November 20, 1998, enjoining the enforcement of COPA until December 4, 1998. (Document Nos. 29 and 30). The defendant agreed to extend the duration of the TRO through February 1, 1999. (Document No. 34). The parties conducted accelerated discovery thereafter. While the parties and the Court considered consolidating the preliminary injunction hearing with a trial on the merits, the Court, upon due consideration of the arguments of the parties, ultimately decided that it would proceed only on the motion for preliminary injunction. (Document No. 39). There necessarily remains a period for completion of discovery and preparation before a trial on the merits. 

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the entire action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of standing in addition to her arguments in response to the motion for preliminary injunction. (Document No. 50). The plaintiffs filed a response to the motion to dismiss (Document No. 69), to which the defendant filed a reply. (Document No. 81). 

On the motion of plaintiffs for preliminary injunction, the Court heard five days of testimony and one day of argument on January 20, 1999 through January 27, 1999. In addition, the parties submitted briefs, expert reports, declarations from many of the named plaintiffs, designated portions of deposition transcripts, and documentary evidence for the Court's review. Based on this evidence and for the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss will be denied and the motion for a preliminary injunction will be granted.

I. The Child Online Protection Act

In what will be codified as 47 U.S.C. 231, COPA provides that:

(1) PROHIBITED CONDUCT.-Whoever knowingly and with knowledge of the character of the material, in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web, makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors shall be fined not more than $50,000, imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both. 

(2) INTENTIONAL VIOLATIONS.-In addition to the penalties under paragraph (1), whoever intentionally violates such paragraph shall be subject to a fine of not more than $50,000 for each violation. For purposes of this paragraph, each day of violation shall constitute a separate violation. 

(3) CIVIL PENALTY.-In addition to the penalties under paragraphs (1) and (2), whoever violates paragraph (1) shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $50,000 for each violation. For purposes of this paragraph, each day of violation shall constitute a separate violation.

COPA specifically provides that a person shall be considered to make a communication for commercial purposes "only if such person is engaged in the business of making such communication." 47 U.S.C. 231(e)(2)(A). A person will be deemed to be "engaged in the business" if the 

person who makes a communication, or offers to make a communication, by means of the World Wide Web, that includes any material that is harmful to minors, devotes time, attention, or labor to such activities, as a regular course of such person's trade or business, with the objective of earning a profit as a result of such activities (although it is not necessary that the person make a profit or that the making or offering to make such communications be the person's sole or principal business or source of income). A person may be considered to be engaged in the business of making, by means of the World Wide Web, communications for commercial purposes that include material that is harmful to minors, only if the person knowingly causes the material that is harmful to minors to be posted on the World Wide Web or knowingly solicits such material to be posted on the World Wide Web.

47 U.S.C. 231(e)(2)(B). 

Congress defined material that is harmful to minors as: 

any communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording, writing, or other matter of any kind that is obscene or that- 

(A) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest; 

(B) depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast; and 

(C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

Id. at 231(e)(6). Under COPA, a minor is any person under 17 years of age. Id. at 231(e)(7).  

COPA provides communicators on the Web for commercial purposes affirmative defenses to prosecution under the statute. Section 231 (c) provides that: 


(1) DEFENSE.-It is an affirmative defense to prosecution under this section that the defendant, in good faith, has restricted access by minors to material that is harmful to minors- 

(A) by requiring use of a credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number; 

(B) by accepting a digital certificate that verifies age; or 

(C) by any other reasonable measures that are feasible under available technology.

The disclosure of information collected in implementing the affirmative defenses is restricted in 231(d): 


(1) DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION LIMITED.-A person making a communication described in subsection (a)- 

(A) shall not disclose any information collected for the purposes of restricting access to such communications to individuals 17 years of age or older without the prior written or electronic consent of- 

(i) the individual concerned, if the individual is an adult; or 

(ii) the individual's parent or guardian, if the individual is under 17 years of age; and 

(B) shall take such actions as are necessary to prevent unauthorized access to such information by a person other than the person making such communication and the recipient of such communication. 

(2) EXCEPTIONS.-A person making a communication described in subsection (a) may disclose such information if the disclosure is- 

(A) necessary to make the communication or conduct a legitimate business activity related to making the communication; or 

(B) made pursuant to a court order authorizing such disclosure.


II. Arguments of the Parties

The arguments of the parties are plentiful and will be only summarized here for purposes of the motion for a preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs argue that COPA is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to them because the regulation of speech that is "harmful to minors" burdens or threatens a large amount of speech that is protected as to adults.(1) According to the plaintiffs, the fact that COPA is vague, overbroad, and a direct ban on speech that provides only affirmative defenses to prosecution contributes to the burden COPA places on speech. The plaintiffs argue that the affirmative defenses provided in COPA do not alleviate the burden on speech because their implementation imposes an economic and technological burden on speakers which results in loss of anonymity to users and consequently loss of users to its Web sites. The plaintiffs contend that the defendant cannot justify the burden on speech by showing that COPA is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest or the least restrictive means to accomplish its ends. Alternatively, plaintiffs frame their facial attack to the statute as an overbreadth challenge, arguing that speech will be chilled on the Web because the statute covers more speech than it was intended to cover, even if it can be constitutionally applied to a narrow class of speakers. The plaintiffs also challenge COPA as being unconstitutionally vague under the First and Fifth Amendments and facially unconstitutional as to speech protected for minors. 

Defendant argues that COPA passes constitutional muster because it is narrowly tailored to the government's compelling interest in protecting minors from harmful materials. The defendant argues that the statute does not inhibit the ability of adults to access such speech or the ability of commercial purveyors of materials that are harmful to minors to make such speech available to adults. The defendant points to the presence of affirmative defenses in the statute as a technologically and economically feasible method for speakers on the Web to restrict the access of minors to harmful materials. As to the plaintiffs' argument that COPA is overbroad, the defendant argues that the definition of "harmful to minors" material does not apply to any of the material on the plaintiffs' Web sites, and that the statute only targets commercial pornographers, those who distribute harmful to minors material "as a regular course" of their business. The defendant contends that plaintiffs cannot succeed on their motion for a preliminary injunction because they cannot show a likelihood of success on their claims and that their claim of irreparable harm is merely speculative. 

Some of the defendant's substantive arguments are conceptually intertwined with her arguments in support of the pending motion to dismiss the complaint on the basis that the plaintiffs lack standing to attack the statute. The motion to dismiss will serve as a starting point for the Court's analysis.

III. Resolution of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss

Among other things, the "irreducible constitutional minimum" of standing requires that the plaintiffs allege that they have suffered or imminently will suffer an injury. It is well established that a credible threat of present or future criminal prosecution will confer standing. See, e.g., Virginia v. American Booksellers Ass'n, Inc., 484 U.S. 383, 392-93 (1988) (noting that the Court was "unconcerned by the pre-enforcement nature of th[e] suit" and holding that the injury-in-fact requirement was met, in part, because "plaintiffs have alleged an actual and well-founded fear that the law will be enforced against them"); Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 459 (1974) ("It is not necessary that [a party] first expose himself to actual arrest or prosecution to be entitled to challenge a statue that he claims deters the exercise of his constitutional rights."); Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, 188-89 (1973). The rationale underlying this rule is that a credible threat of present or future prosecution is itself an injury that is sufficient to confer standing, even if there is no history of past enforcement. See Bolton, 410 U.S. at 188. In part, this rationale is based on a recognition that a speaker who fears prosecution may engage in self-censorship, which is itself an injury. 

"The standard-encapsulated in the phrase 'credible threat of prosecution'-is quite forgiving." New Hampshire Right to Life Political Action Comm. v. Gardner, 99 F.3d 8, 14 (1st Cir. 1996) ("NHRLPAC"); see also Babitt v. United Farm Workers Nat'l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 298 (1979). After analyzing both Supreme Court precedent and federal appellate court decisions, the NHRLPAC Court concluded that "the preceding cases make clear that when dealing with pre-enforcement challenges to recently enacted (or, at least non-moribund) statutes that facially restrict expressive activity by the class to which the plaintiff belongs, the court will assume a credible threat of prosecution in the absence of compelling contrary evidence." 99 F.3d at 15; see also Babitt, 442 U.S. at 301-02; Doe, 410 U.S. at 188; American Booksellers, 484 U.S. at 392-93; Chamber of Commerce v. REC, 69 F.3d 600, 603-04 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (even though no present danger of enforcement existed, a credible threat of prosecution existed because nothing would "prevent the Commission from enforcing its rule at any time with, perhaps, another change of mind of one of the Commissioners"); Wilson v. Stocker, 819 F.2d 943, 946 (10th Cir. 1987) (holding that when a state statute "chills the exercise of First Amendment rights, standing exists even though the official charged with enforcement responsibilities has not taken any enforcement action against the plaintiffs and does not presently intend to take any such action"). 

The gravamen of the motion of defendant is that plaintiffs' fear of prosecution is wholly speculative and, therefore, not a credible threat sufficient to confer standing. The defendant argues that the plaintiffs lack standing because the material on their Web site is not "harmful to minors," and the plaintiffs are not "engaged in the business" of distributing harmful to minors materials under the statute. The defendant contends that the Court should narrowly construe COPA to apply to those engaged in the business of commercial pornography, which does not include any of the plaintiffs. 

There is nothing in the text of the COPA, however, that limits its applicability to so-called commercial pornographers only; indeed, the text of COPA imposes liability on a speaker who knowingly makes any communication for commercial purposes "that includes any material that is harmful to minors," and defines a speaker that is engaged in the business as one who makes a communication "that includes any material that is harmful to minors . . . as a regular course of such person's trade or business (although it is not necessary that the person make a profit or that the making or offering to make such communications be the person's sole or principal business or source of income." (emphasis added). Because COPA applies to communications which include, but are not necessarily wholly comprised of material that is harmful to minors, it logically follows that it would apply to any Web site that contains only some harmful to minors material. 

Based on the allegations of the complaint and the evidence and testimony presented to the Court, it appears that all of the individual plaintiffs except Electronic Privacy Information Center have some content on their Web sites or post some content on other sites that is sexual in nature.(2) All of the organizational plaintiffs have members who have some content on their Web sites or who post some content on other sites that is sexual in nature.(3) The plaintiffs contend that such sexual material could be considered "harmful to minors" by some communities. 

The plaintiffs offer an interpretation of the statute which is not unreasonable, and if their interpretation of COPA's definition of "harmful to minors" and its application to their content is correct, they could potentially face prosecution for that content on their Web sites. Vermont Right to Life Comm. Inc. v. Sorrell, 19 F. Supp.2d 204, 210 (D. Vt. 1998) (plaintiffs had standing to challenge campaign finance statute, even though State argued that the plaintiffs were and had been complying with disclosure requirements and that internal group mailings or an isolated distribution of flyers at a county fair are "a far cry from the mass media activities contemplated by the legislature" because the statute on its face could be applied to the activities of the plaintiffs). 

Moreover, in the First Amendment context, courts recognize a that litigants "are permitted to challenge a statute not because their own rights of free expression are violated, but because of a judicial prediction or assumption that the statute's very existence may cause others not before the court to refrain from constitutionally protected speech or expression." American Booksellers, 484 U.S. at 393 (internal quotation and citation omitted). This Court concludes that the plaintiffs have articulated a credible threat of prosecution or shown that they will imminently suffer an injury sufficient to establish their standing to bring this lawsuit. Accordingly, the motion to dismiss will be denied.

IV. Standard for a Preliminary Injunction

To obtain a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs must prove: (1) a likelihood of success on the merits; (2) irreparable harm; (3) that less harm will result to the defendant if the preliminary injunction issues than to the plaintiffs if the preliminary injunction does not issue; and (4) that the public interest, if any, weighs in favor of plaintiffs. See Pappan Enterprises, Inc. v. Hardees's Food Systems, Inc., 143 F.3d 800, 803 (3d Cir. 1998)).


V. Findings of Fact 

Based on all the evidence admitted at the preliminary injunction hearing, the Court makes the following findings of fact.(4) The parties submitted a Joint Stipulation of Uncontested Facts at the preliminary injunction hearing. (Joint Exhibit 3). Findings of fact numbered 1 through 20 and other findings as indicated are taken from the Joint Stipulation to provide background. 

A. The Internet and the World Wide Web

  1. The Internet is a giant network that interconnects innumerable smaller groups of linked computer networks: a network of networks. (Joint Exhibit 3 1).  
  2. The nature of the Internet is such that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine its size at a given moment. However, it is indisputable that the Internet has experienced extraordinary growth in the past few years. In 1981, fewer than 300 computers were linked to the Internet, and by 1989, the number stood at fewer than 90,000 computers. By 1993, however, over 1,000,000 computers were linked. The number of host computers has more than tripled from approximately 9.4 million hosts in January 1996 to more than 36.7 million hosts in July 1998. Approximately 70.2 million people of all ages use the Internet in the United States alone. (Joint Exhibit 3 3).  
  3. Some of the computers and computer networks that make up the Internet are owned by governmental and public institutions; some are owned by non-profit organizations; and some are privately owned. The resulting whole is a decentralized, global medium of communications -- or "cyberspace" -- that links individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments around the world. The Internet is an international system. This communications medium allows any of the literally tens of millions of people with access to the Internet to exchange information. These communications can occur almost instantaneously, and can be directed either to specific individuals, to a broader group of individuals interested in a particular subject, or to the world as a whole. (Joint Exhibit 3 4).  
  4. The content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought. The Internet provides an easy and inexpensive way for a speaker to reach a large audience, potentially of millions. The start-up and operating costs entailed by communication on the Internet often are significantly lower than those associated with use of other forms of mass communication, such as television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Creation of a Web site can range in cost from a thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, with monthly operating costs depending on one's goals and the Web site's traffic. Commercial online services such as America Online allow subscribers to create a limited number of Web pages as a part of their subscription to AOL services. Any Internet user can communicate by posting a message to one of the thousands of available newsgroups and bulletin boards or by creating one of their own or by engaging in an on-line "chat", and thereby potentially reach an audience worldwide that shares an interest in a particular topic. (Joint Exhibit 3 12).  
  5. Individuals can access the Internet through commercial and non-commercial "Internet service providers" of ISPs that typically offer modem access to a computer or computer network linked to the Internet. Many such providers are commercial entities offering Internet access for a monthly or hourly fee. Some Internet service providers, however, are non-profit organizations that offer free or very low cost access to the Internet. (Joint Exhibit 3 18).  
  6. Another common way that individuals can access the Internet is through one of the major national commercial "online services" such as America Online or the Microsoft Network. These online services offer nationwide computer networks (so that subscribers can dial-in to a local telephone number), and the services provide extensive and well organized content within their own proprietary computer networks. In addition to allowing access to the extensive content available within each online service, the services also allow subscribers to link to the much larger resources of the Internet. Full access to the online service (including access to the Internet) can be obtained for modest monthly or hourly fees. The major commercial online services have millions of individual subscribers across the United States. (Joint Exhibit 3 19).  
  7. In addition to ISPs, individuals may be able to access the Internet through schools, employers, libraries, and community networks. (Joint Exhibit 3 14-17).  
  8. Once one has access to the Internet, there are a wide variety of different methods of communication and information exchange over the network, utilizing a number of different Internet "protocols." These many methods of communication and information retrieval are constantly evolving and are therefore difficult to categorize concisely. The most common methods of communications on the Internet (as well as within the major online services) can be roughly grouped into six categories: 

(1) one-to-one messaging (such as "e-mail"), 

(2) one-to-many messaging (such as "listserv" or "mail exploders"), 

(3) distributed message databases (such as "USENET newsgroups"), 

(4) real time communication (such as "Internet Relay Chat"), 

(5) real time remote computer utilization (such as "telnet"), and 

(6) remote information retrieval (such as "ftp," "gopher," and the "World Wide Web").

Most of these methods of comm

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