ACLU Challenges Constitutionality of Law Aimed at Online Porn

Michael Hayes
PHILADELPHIA — Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, a coalition of website publishers offered opening arguments today in their case against the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

The law, which has yet to be enforced, requires adults to use access codes or credit cards to verify their age on websites displaying material considered to be “harmful to children.”

Website operators that fail to comply with the law could face a $50,000 fine and a six-month prison sentence.

Arguing that the law restricts the publication of legitimate material, sites such as Salon.com and Nerve.com filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of COPA.

“The right to free speech is one of the core values of this country," ACLU attorney Chris Hansen said. "Congress does not have the right to censor information on the Internet. Americans have the right to participate in the global conversation that happens online every moment of every day."

Previously, a federal district court in Philadelphia and a federal appeals court found the online censorship law unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court upheld the ban on enforcement of the law in June 2004. The Justices, however, also asked the Philadelphia court to determine whether there had been any changes in technology that would affect the constitutionality of the statute.

In other words, the trial will focus on the issue of the effectives of technologies aimed at protecting children online such as filtering software.

“The government will argue that parents are too stupid to use filters,” Hansen said. “It's an insulting argument, and it's wrong.”

Appearing before U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed, U.S. Attorney Eric Beane told the court that the idea of leaving the filtering option in the hands of parents was tempting but foolhardy.

“The evidence will show that a shocking amount of pornography slips through to children,” Beane said.

In preparation for the case, attorneys at the Justice Department sought and received records from Internet service providers and search engine companies. Only Google refused. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company was later ordered to share 50,000 random URLs by U.S. Judge James Ware, who declined to give the government access to 5,000 search queries, citing privacy concerns.

The trial is expected to last about a month.