Federal Court Strikes Down Pennsylvania Law That Blocked More Than One Million Legal Web Sites

September 10, 2004 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA — In a critical test of a novel attempt to regulate speech on the Internet, a federal judge today held Pennsylvania’s web blocking law to be unconstitutional. The court found that the state’s “Internet Child Pornography Act” was ineffective in blocking child pornography, but was very effective in blocking access to more than one million constitutionally protected web sites with no sexual content.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Center for Democracy & Technology and Plantagenet, Inc., a small Pennsylvania-based Internet Service Provider (ISP). Over the course of a 13-day trial, the groups presented evidence demonstrating how much socially useful speech was being blocked under the law at the same time that child pornography continued to remain available on the Internet.

“The court carefully considered evidence after nearly three weeks of trial and found that there is no evidence that the law has reduced child sexual abuse,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, Litigation Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Instead, the court did find that the law blocked access to over a million web sites that had absolutely no sexual content. The court then rightly concluded that such an ineffective law that censors so much protected speech clearly violates the First Amendment.”

In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a law giving the attorney general extensive powers to order ISPs to remove or disable access to web sites containing child pornography. In today’s decision, the court found that because of the way in which the Internet works, the law could not be implemented without excessive blocking of non-sexual speech. The court also found that the procedure set forth in the Act did not adequately comply with the First Amendment. Finally, the court held that the law violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution because it affected interstate commerce.

“The court’s comprehensive review of the evidence shows how important it is for policy makers to take the time to learn how the Internet actually works,” said Larry Frankel, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This opinion should encourage our legislators to tread very carefully before attempting to regulate the Internet.”

ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Stefan Presser, along with Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Center for Democracy and Technology Staff Counsel John Morris, represented the plaintiffs in this litigation.

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