ACLU Wins First-Ever Challenge to a State Internet Censorship Law in Georgia

June 20, 1997 12:00 am

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ATLANTA — As the nation awaits a Supreme Court decision on Internet censorship, a federal district judge here today struck down a state law criminalizing online anonymous speech and the use of trademarked logos as links on the World Wide Web.

Ruling simultaneously in ALA v. Pataki, another ACLU challenge to state Internet regulation, a Federal District Judge in New York today blocked the state from enforcing its version of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA).

In ACLU v. Miller, Federal District Court Judge Marvin Shoob today granted the ACLU’s request to enjoin Georgia’s statute restricting free speech in cyberspace and denied the State’s request to dismiss the suit.

The Court agreed with the ACLU, Electronic Frontiers Georgia and others that the statute is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it bars online users from using pseudonyms or communicating anonymously over the Internet. The Act also unconstitutionally restricts the use of links on the World Wide Web which allows users to connect to other sites.

In the Court’s decision, Judge Shoob noted that Georgia’s law, “sweeps innocent, protected speech within its scope.” He went on to say that it, “affords prosecutors and police officers with substantial room for selective prosecution of persons who express minority viewpoints. . . .[Moreover,] Georgia already has in place many less restrictive means to address fraud and misrepresentation.”

“The Court’s order goes straight to the First Amendment flaws with the statute.” said Scott McClain of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, cooperating attorneys for the ACLU. “Judge Shoob viewed the statute exactly as the Plaintiffs did: as a vague, overbroad, unconstitutional restriction on free speech and privacy on the Internet.”

“The Court recognized that anonymity is the passport for entry into cyberspace for many persons,” said Gerald Weber, Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Without anonymity, victims of domestic violence, persons in Alcoholics Anonymous, people with AIDS and so many others would fear using the Internet to seek information and support.”

“We are very pleased with the Judge’s decision,” said Robert Costner, Executive Director of Electronic Frontiers Georgia. “This injunction clears the way for Electronics Frontier Georgia to release our anonymous remailer services on the Internet.”

Georgia’s lawsuit was the first challenge to state cyberspace laws and statutes restricting privacy on the Internet.

Today’s ruling came as the nation awaits word from the U.S. Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU, the ACLU’s challenge to Internet censorship provisions of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA).

“Today’s decisions in New York and Georgia say that, whatever limits the Supreme Court sets on Congress’s power to regulate the Internet, states are prohibited from acting to censor online expression,” said Ann Beeson, an ACLU national staff attorney and member of the legal teams in the New York, Georgia and federal cases.

“Taken together, these decisions send a very important and powerful message to legislators in the other 48 states that they should keep their hands off the Internet,” Beeson added.

The Georgia lawsuit was filed on September 24, 1996, by the ACLU on behalf of 14 plaintiffs. The 14 individual plaintiffs and organizations named in the ACLU v. Miller are: American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia; The AIDS Survival Project; the Atlanta Freethought Society; Atlanta Veterans Alliance; Community ConneXion; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Electronic Frontiers Georgia; Rep. Mitchell Kaye; Ken Leebow; Bruce Mirken; Bonnie L. Nadri; Josh Riley; John Troyer; and Jonathan Wallace.

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