Civil libertarians urge government to refrain from enforcing new Internet law

Friday, November 6, 1998

U.S. Attorney G...
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno

The Justice Department should “refrain from prosecutions” under the newly enacted federal law that criminalizes commercial online distribution of material which is “harmful to minors,” 16 civil liberty organizations told U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in a letter this week.

Signed Nov. 4, the letter says the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, “suffers from the same problems” as the Internet indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, or CDA.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 1997 in Reno v. ACLU that criminalizing “indecent” and “patently offensive” online communication would suppress “a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to send and receive.”

According to the civil liberties groups, COPA — like the CDA — “will immediately damage freedom of expression, the bedrock value at the core of the First Amendment.”

Seventeen different organizations, several of which signed the letter to Reno, filed suit in federal court Oct. 22, contending that COPA violates First Amendment free-speech rights.

Some civil libertarians say their case against COPA is bolstered by an Oct. 5 memo sent by the Department of Justice to Congress outlining the agency's constitutional concerns with the bill. The letter, signed by L. Anthony Sutin, acting attorney general, said COPA contained “numerous ambiguities concerning the scope of its coverage.”

The memo warned that “the (U.S. Supreme) Court is likely to examine very carefully any content-based restrictions on the Internet.”

Chris Finan, executive director for the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, said: “We would hope that the Department of Justice takes into consideration their own memo pointing out the likely grounds for the overturning of this act. However, we know as a practical matter that the attorney general is under the same great political pressure to protect kids that led Congress to pass the measure.”

Ann Beeson, ACLU staff attorney and lead counsel in the challenge to COPA, said that negotiations are ongoing between the Department of Justice and the concerned organizations. Noting that there is a scheduled court meeting Monday, Beeson said that something should be resolved with respect to the issue of COPA prosecutions early next week.

The Justice Department could not be reached for comment.