Issue 72, Winter 1998/1999

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that non-obscene speech is protected online, as it is in print (ACLU v. Reno). To circumvent the ruling, in October Congress enacted the “Child Online Protection Act.” Before the law took effect, however, a federal district judge held that the ACLU, Web providers, and others are likely to prevail on their challenge and enjoined its enforcement.

The new law would require commercial web sites to prevent anyone under 17 from accessing material that is “harmful to minors.” Free expression advocates claim this could include the Starr report, health and sex education, art that contains nudity, and classical and contemporary literature. Violators could be jailed for up to six months or fined as much as $50,000, or both.

Commercial web sites can continue to sell x-rated materials if they require adult identification such as credit cards. Minors would still have access to websites produced abroad or non-commercial sites. The primary effect of the legislation will be to chill speech that is protected without inhibiting minors’ access to pornography, which is, presumably, the lawmakers’ target. NCAC and other concerned organizations urged Attorney General Janet Reno to refrain from enforcing the Act, pending judicial review.