Federal judge halts enforcement of Child Online Protection Act
A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order yesterday prohibiting the U.S. Justice Department from enforcing the Child Online Protection Act or COPA, the new federal law that restricts speech on the World Wide Web.
The law, which was scheduled to go into effect today, criminalizes commercial online communication that is “harmful to minors.” COPA represents Congress’ second attempt at regulating speech on the Internet.
In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reno v. ACLU that provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, also called the CDA, prohibiting “patently offensive” and “indecent” online communications violated First Amendment free-speech rights.
After the high court’s decision, Congress returned with another Internet sanitation law — COPA — which was signed into law last Oct. 21.
The next day, the American Civil Liberties Union and 16 other organizations filed suit in ACLU v. Reno in federal court in Philadelphia, the locale of Reno v. ACLU, contending that the new law suffers from the same “constitutional flaws” as the Internet indecency provisions of the CDA.
In their motion for a temporary restraining order, the plaintiffs wrote: “Plaintiffs and other speakers face suppression of a wide range of constitutionally protected speech about sexually oriented issues including gay and lesbian resources, safer sex, national sex scandals, and fine art. Speakers will either have to self-censor their communications or face criminal prosecution if the COPA is not enjoined.”
David Talbot, CEO of the online magazine Salon, and Norman Laurila, president of A Different Light Bookstore, testified that if the law went into effect, they might have to close down their Web sites. Both Salon and A Different Light Bookstore are plaintiffs in the case.
Ann Beeson, the lead attorney challenging the law, said that Talbot and Laurila provided “compelling testimony” in support of the temporary restraining order.
Though stating that he recognized the “laudable purpose” behind the passage of COPA, U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. granted a temporary restraining order for 10 days until Dec. 4.
The court is scheduled to hear the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction Dec. 8-9. ACLU officials say they expect Reed to extend the temporary restraining order until that hearing.
Reed’s order provides that “the Court may modify this Order as the ends of justice require.”
Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: “This is an important first step. At least for now, speech on the Internet retains the strong constitutional protection that the Supreme Court said it deserved” in Reno v. ACLU.
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