Child Online Protection Act Would Impose Harsh Penalties For Using Protected Speech Online
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PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union is in court today, once again urging the courts to uphold a ban on a law that criminalizes constitutionally protected speech on the Internet. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) would impose draconian criminal sanctions, with penalties of up to $50,000 per day and up to six months imprisonment, for online material acknowledged as protected for adults but deemed "harmful to minors."
"The right to free speech online and off is a bedrock of American values," said Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "It is not the role of Congress to censor what information people can read and access on the Internet."
Previously, a federal district court and a federal appeals court found the online censorship law unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the ban on enforcement of the law in June 2004, sending the case back to the district court to determine whether there had been any changes in technology that would affect the constitutionality of the statute, such as whether commercially available blocking software was still as effective as the banned law might be in blocking material deemed "harmful to minors." In March 2007, U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr. once again struck down COPA, finding the law violates the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.
Judge Reed issued an order permanently prohibiting the government from enforcing COPA, commenting that "perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection." The government again appealed, and the case, ACLU v. Gonzales (originally ACLU v. Reno, then ACLU v. Ashcroft) is again before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today.
"For an entire decade, courts have been striking down the so-called Child Online Protection Act as unconstitutional," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "COPA is fatally flawed and unconstitutional today, just as it was ten years ago and as it has since been found several times in the courts."
The ACLU charges COPA is marred by unconstitutional flaws that are similar to the flaws that led the Supreme Court in 1997 to strike down Congress' first attempt to censor the Internet, the Communications Decency Act.
Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney with the ACLU, will argue today at 2:00 p.m. EDT before Judges Thomas Ambro, Michael Chagares and Morton Greenberg of the Third Circuit. The other attorneys on the case include Fine, Crump and Ben Wizner of the ACLU and Christopher Harris and Jeroen van Kwawegen with the law firm Latham & Watkins.
More information about COPA, including legal documents, is available online at: www.aclu.org/copa