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Judge strikes down Internet anti-porn law


WASHINGTON (BP)–The effort to protect children from Internet pornography has suffered another legal setback.

A federal judge in Philadelphia struck down March 22 a federal law that prohibits commercial websites from making sexually explicit material available to children under the age of 17. In permanently blocking enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), judge Lowell Reed Jr. ruled the 1998 law violated the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.

It marked the second time Reed has ruled on COPA, having issued a preliminary injunction against its enforcement in 1999. The case worked its way to the Supreme Court, where the justices voted 5-4 in 2004 to uphold the injunction. They also ordered the case to return to the federal court for a full trial.

The case, ACLU v. Gonzales, could return to the high court, where chances for a reversal appear remote. Two new justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito — have joined the court since 2004, but those they replaced -– the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor -– both dissented in the earlier decision. Therefore, there would be no gain on the court for supporters of the law, unless another justice changes his vote.

In his 84-page opinion, Reed agreed with Congress’ goal but said COPA was vague, overbroad and not “the least restrictive and most effective alternative” in accomplishing the federal government’s interest in protecting minors online. He affirmed filtering technology as opposed to the measure, which required websites to confirm a person’s age through such means as credit or identification cards.

“I may not turn a blind eye to the law in order to attempt to satisfy my urge to protect this nation’s youth by upholding a flawed statute, especially when a more effective and less restrictive alternative is readily available (although I do recognize that filters are neither a panacea nor necessarily found to be the ultimate solution to the problem at hand),” wrote Reed, a 1987 nominee of the late President Reagan.

A supporter of the law described the courts’ continuing opposition to online protections for children “utter nonsense.”

“Today, if a child were to walk into an ‘adult bookstore,’ he or she would be told to leave, because it is against the law to sell pornography to children in real space,” Morality in Media President Robert Peters said in a written statement. “But if that same child were to ‘click’ to most commercial Web sites that distribute pornography, he or she could view pornography free of charge and without restriction, because when it comes to ‘cyberspace,’ the federal courts think it is up to parents to keep children away from Internet pornography.”

Congress passed COPA as a response to the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The justices struck down in 1997 the portion of CDA that barred the online transmission of indecent material but maintained the law’s provision on obscenity. CDA, which was enacted in 1996, barred online computer distribution of obscene and indecent material to children less than 18 years of age. COPA, though, narrowed its target to commercial websites and lowered the age limit for a minor to children under 17.

In 2002, the justices invalidated portions of another law, the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, which barred images that appear to be of children less than 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

The high court granted in 2003 a limited victory to Congress’ attempts to protect children when it upheld the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires public and school libraries that receive government Internet discounts to install filters on their computers to block pornography.
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