Closing Arguments Begin in COPA Trial

Michael Hayes
PHILADELPHIA — After a four-week trial, U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed will hear closing arguments in the Child Online Protection Act case. The case, which pits a host of plaintiffs represented by the ACLU against the U.S. government, will determine the constitutionality of the 1998 law that — if enforced — mandates age verification for websites containing material considered “harmful to minors.”

The bench trial represents a last ditch effort on the part of the government to save the controversial law that imposes a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison for website operators who fail to comply with the law’s age verification requirements.

In 1999, Reed issued an injunction against the law, saying there was a “substantial likelihood” that it violated the 1st Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Reed in 2004 when it ruled 5-4 in favor of the plaintiffs. But the high court didn’t completely kill COPA in the ruling, which ordered a trial where the government could make the case that the law is a reasonable restriction on free speech or that the use of filters was a less restrictive alternative that could save the law.

During the trial, a host of experts testified on both sides.

Justice Department lawyers relied on Rutgers University linguistics professor Stephen Neale, who told the court that no filter could succeed in blocking every porn site. Neale also made the point that filters run the risk of blocking legitimate sites. For example, most filters would likely block a site dedicated to the issue of breast cancer, Neale said.

To make the case that COPA is an overbroad restriction of protected speech and that filters are a better solution, ACLU lawyers called upon a range of artists, online writers and filtering experts as witnesses in the trial.

"Since Congress passed this law, the Internet has changed and it is now clear that this harsh, criminal law won't come close to achieving its goals," ACLU staff attorney Chris Hansen said. "It is also clear that other alternatives, including education and filtering, are far more effective for those parents who want to limit access by their children to certain websites using their own values."

The ACLU will present its closing arguments today. Justice Department attorneys will then give their closing arguments.

A ruling is expected early in 2007.