Government's Brief Asserts Unprecedented Powers to Criminalize Online Speech; Court Sets Oral Argument for March 19

January 22, 1997 12:00 am

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New York--After reviewing the Justice Department's brief on the Communications Decency Act filed late yesterday with the U.S. Supreme Court, the ACLU said that the government is seeking unprecedented powers to criminalize speech on the Internet.

The ACLU said that the government's 55-page brief in Reno v. ACLU is "at odds with the extensive factual findings of the trial court," which ruled last June that censorship provisions of the CDA unconstitutionally restricted free speech.

"The government's arguments, if adopted, would justify blanket censorship not just on the Internet, but in traditional forums such as libraries and bookstores," said Christopher Hansen, an ACLU national staff attorney on the Reno v. ACLU legal team.

Further, he noted that the government's brief makes the astounding claim that it is protecting the First Amendment by censoring free speech on the Internet, asserting that a fear of encountering "indecency" online could deter potential users from exercising their First Amendment interest in accessing the new medium.

"It is supremely ironic that the government now says it is protecting the First Amendment rights of Americans by threatening people with jail for engaging in constitutionally protected speech," Hansen said

The kind of "indecency" identified by government witnesses in the lower court included words and images displayed online by organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Stop Prisoner Rape, Human Rights Watch and Critical Path AIDS Project, all plaintiffs in Reno v. ACLU, Hansen said.

The Supreme Court announced today that it would hear oral argument in the case on Wednesday, March 19, at 10:00 a.m. Each side will be given a half-hour to present their arguments. According to the briefing schedule set by the Court, plaintiff's answering briefs are due on February 20. The government's final, or reply brief, is due on March 7.

In addition to the government's brief, three sets of plaintiff groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs on Tuesday in support of the government's position: Enough is Enough (along with eight other plaintiffs), Morality in Media, and a group of members of Congress led by former Senator J. James Exon (D-Neb.), who sponsored the Communications Decency Act.

Complete information on the ACLU's challenge to the CDA, including a chronology, trial briefs, affidavits, courtroom transcripts, and a backgrounder on Supreme Court procedures in the case, are available online at the ACLU's website ( and America Online site (keyword: ACLU),

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