Wall Street Journal Holds Debate on COPA

Michael Hayes
NEW YORK — With lawyers for the ACLU and the Department of Justice squaring off in a U.S. District Court in Philadelphia for the trial to determine the constitutionality of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the Wall Street Journal recently asked whether more laws were needed to protect children on the Internet?

To answer the question, the newspaper invited a child protection advocate and a 1st Amendment lawyer to debate the merits of the law that — if enforced — would require adults to use access codes or credit cards to verify their age on websites displaying material considered to be “harmful to children.”

Noted 1st Amendment attorney John Morris, who led the successful legal challenge to defeat the Communications Decency Act, a COPA predecessor, made the case that COPA, which also imposes a $50,000 fine and six-month prison sentence for webmasters who fail to comply, should be declared unconstitutional. Opposing Morris in the email exchange, Richard Whidden of the National Law Center for Children and Families, argued in favor of the law.

Whidden began the dialogue by saying that despite the use of filtering technology to protect children online, the incidence of kids being exposed to adult content on the Internet continues to rise.

“Clearly, the experiment of filtering advocated by some is not the panacea in protecting the innocence of children from unwanted exposure to sexual material or unwanted solicitations,” Whidden said. “We must go beyond filters and laying the burden solely on parents. Government, parents and the Internet industry should take another hard look at protecting children online and provide law enforcement the tools to investigate and bring to justice child predators and child pornographers.”

While Morris agreed that protecting children online was of critical importance, he took a more pragmatic approach to COPA.

“A majority of the sexual content on the Internet is outside of the U.S. and thus beyond the effective reach of U.S. law,” he said. “The most effective way to protect kids online is for parents to use filtering tools, which guard against sexual content wherever it is located.”

To read a full copy of the email dialogue, click here.