ACLU v. Reno: A Chronology

June 26, 1997 12:00 am

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February 7

  • At a news conference in Washington, D.C., the ACLU announces plans to seek a temporary restraining order against indecency provisions of the Telecommunications Bill immediately after it is signed into law by President Clinton on February 8.
  • The ACLU announces the launch of its new "Freedom Network" World Wide Web site, <>, with a home page declaring, "Keep Cyberspace Free." Over 200,000 hits are recorded in the first 48 hours of the launch.

February 8

  • The ACLU files its legal challenge in federal district court in Philadelphia before Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter.
  • In the first court action over the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act , Judge Buckwalter directs the government to refrain from prosecuting for so-called indecent or patently offensive material online until the motion for a TRO is decided.
  • The judge instructs the government to file a reply brief to the ACLU's request for a TRO within one week.
  • Government lawyers concede that the abortion speech restrictions of the CDA are unconstitutional.

February 15

  • Judge Buckwalter grants a temporary restraining order on the indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act, and denies the TRO motions on prosecution for "patently offensive material" and on the "Comstock Law" abortion speech provisions of the CDA.
  • A three-judge panel is convened to hear the case: Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, Judge Stewart Dalzell, and Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter.

February 21

  • More than 5,000 visitors to the ACLU website use the "instant action" feature to e-mail or fax Attorney General Janet Reno, urging her not to prosecute under the new law.

February 23

  • ACLU announces that government lawyers have agreed not to initiate investigations or prosecute Internet "indecency" or "patently offensive" material until the three-judge court rules on the case.
  • Hearing dates set for the case; the ACLU will present its evidence on March 21 and 22, with April 1 reserved. The government's dates are April 11 and 12, 1996. The total trial is scheduled to last five days.

February 26

  • More than 20 corporate and trade organizations, known as the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), initiate a second legal challenge to the Communications Decency Act.

February 27

  • The CIEC suit, organized by the American Library Association, America Online and the Center for Democracy and Technology, is formally consolidated with ACLU v. Reno.

March 20

  • A diverse group of individuals and groups that use the Internet file amici curiae brief on behalf of the ACLU, citing the "vast array of speech having serious social, political, literary, artistic, medical and educational merit," which might be criminalized under the CDA.
  • Amici include the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Feminists for Free Expression, Palmer Museum of Art, PEN American Center, Philadelphia Magazine, and Web Communications. The brief was filed by the Philadelphia firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.

March 21: Day One of Trial

  • Trial opens at 9:30 a.m. in the ceremonial courtroom in federal district court in Philadelphia.
  • ACLU plaintiffs Patricia Nell Warren of WildCat Press and Kiyoshi Kuromiya of the Critical Path AIDS Project tell judges they fear censorship under the new law.
  • ALA plaintiff Ann Duvall, president of SurfWatch, takes judges on a first-ever live tour of the Internet, including a demonstration of how her company's software blocks access to sites deemed unsuitable for children.

March 22: Day Two of Trial

  • Dr. Donna Hoffman, an expert witness on marketing in cyberspace, tells the court that the censorship law would destroy the democratic nature of cyberspace, causing many "mom & pop" websites to close up shop for fear of civil and criminal penalties under the vague "indecency" ban.
  • Hearing dates for government testimony are changed to April 12 and 15; April 26 is reserved for ACLU and ALA lawyers to present witnesses rebutting the government's testimony.

April 1: Day Three of Trial

  • The ACLU takes the stand as national associate director Barry Steinhardt offers testimony on why it is technically and economically infeasible for the ACLU (and others) to comply with the censorship law.
  • Other ACLU and ALA plaintiff witnesses include: Howard Rheingold, author and expert on cyberspace communities; Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape; Bill Burrington, assistant general counsel, America Online; and Andrew Anker, president and CEO, HotWired.

April 4

  • Government lawyers advise the court of the two witnesses they plan to present: Dr. Dan Olsen, Professor of Computer Sciences at Brigham Young University; and Special Agent Howard A. Schmidt, Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
  • ALA coalition plans to present an additional plaintiff witness on April 12: Dr. Albert Vezza, associate director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science.

April 12: Day Four of Trial

  • Government witness Howard Schmidt concedes under cross-examination that it is "highly unlikely" for anyone to come across sexually explicit information on the Internet by accident.
  • Plaintiff witness Dr. Albert Vezza tells the court about PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), a new rating system designed to allow parents to control children's access to the Internet without censorship.
  • Dan Olsen, the second government witness, acknowledges that PICS would allow parents to control their children's Internet access according to their own values -- as opposed to his own "tagging" scheme that requires self-censorship.

April 15: Day Five of Trial

  • Dan Olsen, returning to complete his testimony, told the court that the best way to comply with the new censorship law would be to block all possibly "indecent" words and images until "questionable" material could be reviewed and labeled for adult consumption.
  • Trial phase ends as plaintiff lawyers waive rebuttal of government testimony.
  • Closing arguments in ACLU v. Reno are moved up to Friday, May 10.

April 29

  • Post-trial briefs and findings of fact are filed by plaintiff and government lawyers.

May 10: Closing Arguments

  • Arguments are scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. in the ceremonial courtroom in federal district court in Philadelphia.
  • Plaintiff and government lawyers each have two hours to make their case and answer questions from the judges.
  • After a ruling on the Plaintiffs' preliminary injunction motion by the three-judge panel, under expedited provisions, any appeal would be made directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

June 12: Victory!

  • In a resounding victory for First Amendment rights everywhere, the judges ruled unanimously in favor of the ACLU, preserving free speech in cyberspace.
  • At a press conference in New York City, ACLU executive director Ira Glasser hailed the ruling as one of the most important First Amendment decisions of this century.
  • Within minutes after the judges' ruling was announced, an electronic copy of the decision was posted on the ACLU website and America Online site. More than 7,000 visitors viewed or downloaded the decision via the ACLU's online sites.
  • The ACLU press conference was also "cybercast" on Real Audio. Nearly 1,000 visitors to the ACLU website tuned in.

July 1: Government Appeals

  • The government files an appeal to the June 12, Federal Court ruling and the case, now known as Reno v. ACLU, is headed for the Supreme Court.

October 31: ACLU Replies

  • The ACLU files a brief in answer to the government's appeal, asking the High Court to issue a "summary affirmance" - a finding that the lower court's decision was constitutionally correct and therefore does not merit further examination.

December 6: Supreme Court to Review Reno v. ACLU

  • The Supreme Court announces that it will review Reno v. ACLU. ACLU Legal Director Steve Shapiro says the group is prepared to vigorously defend the lower court decision.

January 21: Government Files First Supreme Court Brief

  • Government's brief before the Court asserts unprecedented powers to criminalize free speech.

February 20: Appellees' (ACLU and ALA) answering briefs due.

March 7: Government's final brief due.

March 19: Oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Immediately following the argument, ACLU lawyers and plaintiffs offer commentary and analysis in a live news conference "cybercast" via RealAudio. In an Internet first, the ACLU also arranges to post Supreme Court transcripts of the argument on its website (

June 26: Supreme Court Rules: Cyberspace Must Be Free!

  • In a virtually unanimous decision written by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court rules 7-2 to affirm the lower court decision striking down the CDA as unconstitutional (Justice O'Connor, with Chief Justice Rehnquist, concurring in the judgment but dissenting in part).

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