ACLU Lauds Judges' Ruling Protecting Free Speech in Cyberspace

June 12, 1996 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA– In a resounding victory for First Amendment rights everywhere, a three-judge panel in federal district court in Philadelphia today struck down a law that would criminalize free speech in cyberspace.

In a 3-0 decision with three separate opinions issued by Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, Judge Stewart Dalzell, and Judge Buckwalter, the court granted a motion for preliminary injunction on “indecency” provisions of the Communications Decency Act.

“Cutting through the acronyms and argot that littered hearing testimony, the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation,” Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in his opinion. “As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion.”

Speaking at a press conference today in New York, the ACLU lauded the court’s ruling. “It’s only a handful of times in a century that a court is called upon to decide what the rules will be in a new communications medium,” said Christopher Hansen, one of the lawyers who argued the case for the ACLU. “Today’s decision reaffirms that, no matter what the medium, the message should be protected by the First Amendment .”

Addressing the ACLU’s argument that the “indecency” and “patently offensive” provisions of the CDA were impermissibly vague, Judge Ronald Buckwalter wrote: “I continue to believe that the word “indecent ” is unconstitutionally vague, and I find that the terms “in context” and “patently offensive” are also so vague as to violate the First and Fifth Amendments.”

“This is a decision of inestimable historic importance,” said Marjorie Heins, a member of the legal team who argued the case before the court. “For the first time, the court has clearly stated that standards like ?indecency’ and ?patently offensive’ are impermissibly vague and therefore unacceptable for regulating free speech by a free people.”

Throughout the course of the trial, the court expressed concern that works of serious literary merit would be censored under the CDA, and that individuals would be held criminally liable for violations.

As Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter noted in her opinion, trusting the government to limit the CDA’s application in a way that would avoid prosecution for works of serious literary or artistic merit “would require a broad trust indeed from a generation of judges not far removed from the attacks on James Joyce’s Ulysses as obscene.”

Summing up her opinion, Judge Sloviter wrote: “The bottom line is that the First Amendment should not be interpreted to require us to entrust the protection it affords to the judgment of prosecutors. Prosecutors come and go…The First Amendment remains to give protection to future generation as well.”

The ACLU filed its legal challenge to the Communications Decency Act on February 8, the day after it was signed into law by President Clinton, saying that its chilling effects would be felt immediately throughout the online world. After an initial hearing before Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter, the three-judge panel was convened to hear the case:. (Note: see Chronology for details on ACLU v. Reno.)

The ACLU’s suit argued that provisions of the CDA were unconstitutional because they would criminalize expression that is protected by the First Amendment. The legislation would also violate constitutional rights to privacy, the ACLU asserted, because it would criminalize certain private e-mail correspondence between individuals.

During five scheduled days of trial, which took place during March, April and May, the court heard from 15 witnesses for the plaintiffs, who testified about the technological and sociological nature of the Internet and how the censorship law would effectively ban most “indecent” speech in cyberspace.

The ACLU brought its case on behalf of 20 individuals and organizations that provide information via the Internet — including itself — moving quickly because it feared that the telecommunications legislation would have an immediate impact on the Internet. In addition to the ACLU, plaintiffs in the case including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Critical Path AIDS Project, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for Global Communication, the journalist Brock Meeks; the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A second case, brought by the American Library Association, was consolidated with ACLU v. Reno on February 26, 1996.

Several plaintiffs, including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, also sought relief from the electronic “gag rule” version of the Comstock Law, criminalizing online speech about abortion. Today’s decision did not address that aspect of the case, because the government had conceded earlier that the abortion speech restrictions were unconstitutional.

Lawyers for the ACLU appearing before the judges are Christopher Hansen, Marjorie Heins, Ann Beeson, and Stefan Presser, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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