ACLU Returns to Court to Defend Right to Online Free Speech

October 23, 2006 12:00 am

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Trial Opens Today in Long-Term Fight Over Government’s Attempt to Censor the Internet

ACLU Defends Free Speech Online >>

PHILADELPHIA — The American Civil Liberties Union today presented opening arguments in federal district court in its longstanding challenge to an Internet censorship law, ACLU v. Gonzales. The censorship law was signed by President Clinton in 1998 and has never been enforced.

“The right to free speech is one of the core values of this country,” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Chris Hansen, who is lead counsel on the case. “Congress does not have the right to censor information on the Internet. Americans have the right to participate in the global conversation that happens online every moment of every day.”

At issue is the ACLU’s challenge to the “Child Online Protection Act” (COPA), which 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 valuable for adults but judged “harmful to minors.”

In a trial that is expected to last four weeks, the ACLU will present evidence from a broad range of Internet speakers including online magazines, an online dictionary, rap artists, painters and video artists, providers of safer sex information and writers. Attorneys will argue that the censorship law directly violates the First Amendment rights of the ACLU’s plaintiffs, their members and tens of millions of other speakers to communicate protected expression on the Internet.

Previously, a federal district court in Philadelphia and a federal appeals court found the online censorship law unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court upheld the ban on enforcement of the law in June 2004. The Justices, however, also asked the Philadelphia 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 in blocking material deemed “harmful to minors.”

The ACLU said that the law will not provide effective protection for parents who are concerned about their children having access to some materials. For example, the law cannot be enforced on the more than 50 percent of speech posted overseas, and it does not apply to non-commercial sites or to instant messaging, peer-to-peer file sharing, chat rooms or e-mail.

“Technology is forever evolving, as are the tools people use to communicate. Internet content filtering has evolved since 1999,” Hansen added. “Unlike COPA, it can be used by parents who are concerned to block overseas sites, peer-to-peer speech, instant messages, and other forms of speech. While not perfect, it protects children more effectively than COPA would. It can also be tailored to the age of the child and the values of the parent”

COPA represents Congress’ second attempt to impose severe criminal and civil sanctions on the display of protected, non-obscene speech on the Internet. A first attempt, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was declared unconstitutional by all nine justice of the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU.

“This case is about speech. It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and use on the Internet. Those are personal decision that should be made by individuals and their families,” Hansen said.

The legal team in the case includes Hansen, Aden Fine, Ben Wizner and Catherine Crump of the national ACLU and attorneys with the law firm Latham and Watkins, which has been working with the ACLU on Internet censorship battles since 1998.

The case will be heard by Senior Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr. The docket number is 2:98-CV-05591-LR.

The trial will be held at the United States District Court House for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, located at 601 Market Street in Philadelphia, PA.

More information, including a full list of plaintiffs, legal documents and the history of Congress’ attempts to censor the Internet, is available online at:

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