Background Briefing: Three-Judge Panel to Hear ACLU Testimony in Landmark Challenge to Internet Censorship Law

March 20, 1996 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA, PA–Beginning tomorrow, a three-judge panel in federal district court in Philadelphia will hear testimony in the consolidated cases of ACLU et al v. Reno and American Library Association et al v. Reno, the landmark challenge to censorship provisions of the Telecommunications Law of 1996.

Free speech in cyberspace is at stake as the first major legal challenge to censorship on the Internet gets underway. The case began when the ACLU filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against indecency provisions of the Telecommunications Bill immediately after it was signed into law by President Clinton on February 8. The suit challenges provisions of the law that criminalize making available to minors “indecent” or “patently offensive” speech.

Acting on behalf of 20 individuals and organizations that provide information via the Internet — including itself — the ACLU said it was moving quickly because it feared that the telecommunications legislation would have an immediate impact on the Internet.

Following this action, a second legal challenge was filed on February 26 by a coalition of more than 20 corporate and trade organizations known as the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC). The CIEC suit, organized by the American Library Association, America Online and the Center for Democracy and Technology, was formally consolidated with ACLU v. Reno.

The CIEC lawsuit, which addresses essentially the same issues as the ACLU challenge, further illustrates the broad spectrum of individuals and organizations that would be affected by the censorship provisions, and strengthens the case for a finding that the law is unconstitutional.

The Court Case

According to procedures laid out by the judges, direct testimony in ACLU v. Reno is to be submitted via affidavit. During the three days of testimony allowed, which will take place over March 21 and 22 and April 1, lawyers for the Department of Justice will cross-examine coalition witnesses, after which lawyers for the ACLU and ALA coalitions will have an opportunity to redirect, i.e., question their witnesses in response to the government’s cross-examination.

In preparation for the case, lawyers for the Department of Justice have been deposing all the ACLU and CIEC witnesses it may choose to cross-examine. So far, government lawyers have declined to cross-examine only two witnesses: Christine Soto and Hunter Allen, teenagers whose affidavits attest to the importance of uncensored access to the Internet by minors.

The government is scheduled to present its witnesses for cross-examination on April 11 and 12, 1996. A fourth day of testimony has been scheduled for April 26, to allow the ACLU and ALA coalitions to present witnesses rebutting the government’s testimony. Following these six days of trial, the judges will issue a ruling. Depending on the outcome, either side may seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACLU witnesses scheduled to appear in court this Thursday and Friday are:

Professor Donna Hoffman, associate professor of management, Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University

William Stayton, psychologist and Baptist minister

– Patricia Nell Warren, author and publisher, WildCat Press and YouthArts online magazine

– Kiyoshi Kuromiya, director, Critical Path AIDS Project

ACLU witnesses scheduled to be cross-examined for the final day of testimony, April 1, are:

Howard Rheingold, author and cyberspace expert

Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU

Stephen Donaldson, executive director, Stop Prisoner Rape.

– Candace Perkins Bowen, president, Journalism Education Association

ACLU v. Reno: A ChronologySchedule of Witness Appearances Teens Affected By Online Censorship Speak Out Plantiffs and Affidavits Temporary Restraing Order Brief

Tune Into Debates

ACLU President Nadine Strossen on MSN Encarta Cyberchat, March 20th

ACLU Executive Directror Ira Glasser to Appear on Firing Line, March 22nd

Ira Glasser will debate William F. Buckley and others on “Firing Line”.

When: Friday, March 22, 1996
9:00 – 11:00 PM EST, check local listings for date and time in your area

Where: Public Broadcasting Stations

Issue: “Resolved: The Government Has the Right to Regulate the Internet”

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