US court blocks online porn law

The United States Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a law meant to punish pornographers who peddle dirty pictures to web-surfing kids is probably an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.

The high court divided five to four over a law passed in 1998, signed by then-president Bill Clinton and now backed by the administration of President George Bush. The majority said a lower court was correct to block the law from taking effect because it likely violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

The court did not end the long fight over the law, however. The majority sent the case back to a lower court for a trial that could give the government a chance to prove the law does not go too far.

The majority, led by Justice Anthony M Kennedy, said there may have been important technological advances in the five years since a federal judge blocked the law.

Holding a new trial will allow discussion of what technology, if any, might allow adults to see and buy material that is legal for them while keeping that material out of the hands of children.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with Kennedy.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics of the anti-pornography law said that it would restrict far too much material that adults may legally see and buy, the court said.

The law, which never took effect, would have authorised fines up to $50 000 for the crime of placing material that is “harmful to minors” within the easy reach of children on the internet.

The law also would have required adults to use access codes and or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online.

For now, the law, known as the Child Online Protection Act (Copa), would sweep with too broad a brush, Kennedy wrote.

“There is a potential for extraordinary harm and a serious chill upon protected speech” if the law took effect, he wrote.

Kennedy said that filtering software “is not a perfect solution to the problem of children gaining access to harmful-to-minors materials”.

He said that so far, the government has failed to prove that other technologies will work better.

The ruling in Ashcroft v American Civil Liberties Union was the last of nearly 80 cases decided in a busy court term.
The year’s marquee cases involving presidential power to dealing with suspected terrorists were announced on Monday, and mostly represented a loss for the Bush administration.

Tuesday’s pornography ruling is more nuanced, but still a blow to the government. It marks the third time the high court has considered the case, and it may not be the last.

Congress had tried repeatedly to find a way to protect web-surfing children from smut without running afoul of the First Amendment.

The justices unanimously struck down the first version of a child-protection law passed in 1996, just as the internet was becoming a commonplace means of communication, research and entertainment.

Congress responded by passing Copa, saying the new law met the Supreme Court’s free-speech standards.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged Copa immediately, arguing that the replacement law was every bit as unconstitutional as the original. The law has been tied up in the courts ever since.—Sapa-AP

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