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Philly appeals court halts enforcement of Internet law

PHILADELPHIA (BP)–The city of brother love continues to be inhospitable to federal efforts to protect children from pornography.

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia recently prevented for the second time enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a 1998 law that bans commercial Web sites from making sexually explicit material available to minors. The U.S. Supreme Court had returned the case to the Third Circuit after the justices decided the lower court’s sole basis for its decision was inadequate.

Upon its review, however, the appeals court reaffirmed its decision. A three-judge panel unanimously agreed a federal court acted appropriately in granting a preliminary injunction against COPA.

The Supreme Court ruled last year the Third Circuit Court erred in its original decision by relying solely on “contemporary community standards” for deciding what material is harmful to underage children. The Third Circuit had ruled this provision made the law too broad, because material on the Internet “deemed harmful by the most puritan of communities” would require the restriction of “vast amounts of material” for all users and likely violate the First Amendment.

The high court determined, however, the community standards measure does not “by itself” make the law overbroad in regards to the First Amendment. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, delivering the court’s judgment, said the justices were not by their decision expressing “any view as to whether COPA suffers from substantial overbreadth for other reasons” or “whether the statute is unconstitutionally vague.”

On its second try, the Third Circuit decided a number of sections of the law “likely render the statute substantially overbroad,” judge Leonard Garth wrote for the panel in the March 6 ACLU v. Ashcroft opinion. COPA “is not narrowly tailored” and “does not use the least restrictive means” to accomplish its goals, he wrote. “COPA is clearly a content-based restriction on speech.”

Congress passed COPA in 1998 after the Supreme Court struck down a more expansive 1996 measure, the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

Before arriving at the high court, CDA also met an unfriendly fate in Philadelphia. A special panel of three judges in the Third Circuit ruled against the law.

In another defeat for pornography opponents, the Third Circuit also struck down last year the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). A three-judge panel ruled unanimously CIPA violated the U.S. Constitution by mandating public libraries that receive government Internet discounts maintain blocking software. The judges said it had been demonstrated the leading filters block thousands of pages of constitutionally protected speech. The decision, however, did not overturn the law’s application to libraries in public schools.

CIPA, which was approved in late 2000, required libraries to install technology to screen out obscenity and child pornography on all computers and soft-core porn and other harmful material on those used by children.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 5 in a review of the Third Circuit decision on CIPA. The high court is expected to issue an opinion by this summer.

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