WASHINGTON A federal appeals court agreed yesterday with a lower court ruling that struck down as unconstitutional a 1998 law intended to protect children from sexual material and other objectionable content on the Internet.
The decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia is the latest twist in a decade-long legal battle over the Child Online Protection Act or COPA. The fight has already reached the Supreme Court and could be headed back there.
The law, which has not taken effect, would bar Web sites from making harmful content available to minors over the Internet. The act was passed in 1998, the year after the Supreme Court ruled that another law intended to protect children from explicit material online the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional in the landmark case Reno v. ACLU.
The ACLU challenged the 1998 law on behalf of a coalition of writers, artists, health educators and the publisher Salon Media Group.
ACLU attorney Chris Hansen argued that Congress has been trying to restrict speech on the Internet far more than it can restrict speech in books and magazines. But, he said, "the rules should be the same."
Indeed, COPA would effectively force all Web sites to provide only family-friendly content because it is not feasible to lock children out of sites that are lawful for adults, said John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a civil liberties group that filed briefs against the law.
In its ruling yesterday in ACLU v. Mukasey, the federal appeals court concluded that COPA is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. The unanimous three-judge panel also ruled that the law violates the First Amendment because filtering technologies and other parental control tools offer a less restrictive way to protect children from inappropriate content online.
Morris argued that filters also provide a more effective way to protect children since they can block objectionable Web sites that are based overseas, beyond the reach of U.S. law.
For its part, the Justice Department said it would review the ruling before deciding its next step.
"We are disappointed that the court of appeals struck down a congressional statute designed to protect our children from exposure to sexually explicit materials on the Internet," said department spokesman Charles Miller.
COPA has never been enforced. The U.S. Supreme Court twice upheld preliminary injunctions that prevented the government from enforcing the law until a trial to determine the act’s constitutionality could be held. (See 2002 ruling Ashcroft v. ACLU and 2004 ruling Ashcroft v. ACLU, II.)