Supreme Court Strikes Down CDA

Thursday, June 26, 1997

The Supreme Court struck down Congress’s first effort to restrict indecent material on the Internet today, ruling that the law violated free-speech rights.

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) “lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority in Reno v. ACLU.

The Court was unanimous in its judgment that most of the challenged provisions of the law were unconstitutional. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote separately that they dissented in part, finding that some of the law could be constitutional.

“This is the first free speech ruling of the 21st century,” said Carole Shields of People for the American Way. “The Supreme Court stood up for a basic American value: free speech for every American.”

The Court found the law excessively vague and not narrowly tailored.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “It is true that we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials. But that interest does not justify an unnecessary broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.”

Stevens said he found “particularly unpersuasive” the government’s argument that regulation is needed to keep parents from avoiding the Internet.

“The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal,” Stevens wrote.

“We presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it.”