NEW YORK (Reuters) - A 1998 law designed to block children from viewing pornography Web sites violates free speech rights, a U.S. federal court ruled on Thursday, in a blow to government efforts to restrict Internet smut.
The ruling sided with a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had argued that the provisions of the Child Online Protection Act were too restrictive and violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that protects free speech.
Judge Lowell Reed of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia wrote in his ruling that while he sympathized with the goal of restricting minors from seeing pornography, other means that were less restrictive of free speech, such as software filters, were available to block such content.
“I may not turn a blind eye to the law ... to protect this nation’s youth by upholding a flawed statute, especially when a more effective and less restrictive alternative is readily available,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
Government lawyers had argued during the four-week trial that Internet filters were ineffective tools since most parents did not actively use them.
Supporters of the law predicted the ruling will be appealed or that new legislation would be passed by Congress.
“It doesn’t matter if the Republicans are in the majority or the Democrats. This issue is something both sides of the aisle feel strongly about,” said Donna Rice Hughes of Enough Is Enough, an Internet pornography watchdog group.
John Morris, a lawyer for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told reporters in a teleconference, “This law is not really aimed at commercial pornography but really reaches far beyond that to a broad range of valuable content.”
The Child Online Protection Act made it a crime for any person to provide minors access to “harmful material” over the Internet. Violators could be fined up to $50,000 and imprisoned for up to 6 months.
The law was never enforced because it was immediately challenged in court after being signed into law by former President Bill Clinton.