CINCINNATI — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that an Ohio law aimed at protecting children from online pornography and predators is constitutional.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found that the law does not violate the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech or the Constitution’s commerce clause, which was intended to allow the free flow of goods among the states.
The panel’s ruling in American Booksellers Foundation v. Strickland followed a January decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that sided with a narrow interpretation of the law criminalizing the sending of harmful material to juveniles. The state Supreme Court said the law was intended to apply to personally directed communications and not to Web sites and public chat rooms, which are generally accessible.
Both sides in the lawsuit that led to the appeals court ruling said they were pleased with the outcome.
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray praised the ruling, which he said upheld the state’s position that the law is constitutional and would allow the law to “finally be enforced.”
Cordray said in a statement that the law provides an important tool for local authorities “as they combat sexual predators’ use of the Internet and other electronic communications to prey on our young people.”
A coalition of publishers, retailers and Web site operators that originally challenged the law before the state amended it and prior to the state Supreme Court’s ruling also welcomed the appeals court ruling.
“The narrowed interpretation of the law means it no longer applies to communications on Web sites, in public chat rooms and through e-mail list serves and e-mail mailing lists,” Michael Bamberger, an attorney representing the Media Coalition, said yesterday.
David Horowitz, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement that the ruling was “a victory for free speech.”
The coalition had challenged an earlier version of the law in 2002. It imposed criminal penalties for electronic transmission to minors of a wide range of materials the coalition said were protected by the First Amendment. The group argued that the law was too broad and could erode the rights of online booksellers, newspaper publishers and video-game dealers.
A federal judge granted an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law, but the Ohio General Assembly amended it in 2003 to address constitutional concerns before the state’s appeal could be heard. The judge ruled that it was still too broad and violated the First Amendment, but denied the coalition’s argument that the law violated the commerce clause.
Before ruling on the appeal of the federal judge’s decision, the 6th Circuit asked the state Supreme Court to resolve legal questions about the law’s interpretation, and the state Supreme Court responded with its January ruling.
In its ruling, the appeals panel wrote that with the scope of the law “limited to personally directed electronic communications as currently available or developed in the future, we find that the statute does not violate the First Amendment or the Commerce Clause.”
The court also said the benefits to Ohio in protecting its youth from sexual predators and harmful materials “outweigh any effect that this law could have on interstate commerce.”
The appeals panel sent the case back to district court, ordering the judge to vacate the injunction that had prohibited the law’s enforcement and find for the state.