Student Well-Being

High Court Bars Internet-Porn Statute From Taking Effect

By Caroline Hendrie — July 14, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A federal law aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography will remain on hold, following a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court finding it likely that the statute’s goals can be achieved by means that carry less potential threat to Americans’ rights to free speech.

See Also...

See the accompanying table, “Education and the Supreme Court: The 2003-04 Term.”

The 6-year-old legal tussle over the Child Online Protection Act—the subject of an earlier decision by the high court in 2002—now moves back to a federal district court for a trial on whether the law violates those First Amendment rights.

Enacted by Congress in 1998 after the high court struck down an earlier law that had a similar intent, the statute would impose criminal penalties on commercial Web publishers who failed to restrict access by minors to sexually explicit material through use of age-verification technology. It was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of various online publishers and others.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in his June 29 majority opinion that filtering software designed to screen out sexually explicit content—while “not a perfect solution"—might well be more effective at achieving Congress’ purposes than the statute.

For that reason, a U.S. District Court judge in Philadelphia was right to block enforcement of the law while the case moved forward, he wrote, and that ban should remain pending a trial. In 2002, the high court had considered an earlier challenge to the injunction, and rejected the reasoning used to uphold it by the Philadelphia- based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

In the current case, Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (Case No. 03-218), Justice Kennedy said that because the law imposes “content-based restrictions on speech,” the government bears the burden at trial of showing that it is constitutional.

“Content-based prohibitions, enforced by severe criminal penalties, have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people,” he wrote. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

That the act would be such a “repressive force” was rejected by Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a dissent joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Nearly all of the material covered by the law would be considered obscene and therefore not constitutionally protected, Justice Breyer argued, so the law would impose “a burden on protected speech that is no more than modest.”

He also disputed the argument that filtering software is a “less restrictive alternative” to the law because it “cannot distinguish between the most obscene pictorial image and the Venus de Milo.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that the law was constitutional, but argued that it should be subject to a less stringent standard of review.

School Board Case

In separate action near the end of its 2003-04 term, the high court declined to take up the appeal of a retired teacher who alleged that school officials in Columbus, Ohio, had violated his right to free speech during five meetings of the city school board from March 2000 to October 2002.

Representing himself, Ivy Featherstone contended that his rights were infringed, for example, when the board passed and then rescinded a policy prohibiting speakers from mentioning board members by name, and when board members joked and laughed instead of paying attention while he spoke during public-comment sessions.

A federal district judge granted summary judgment to the board, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, upheld that decision in March. On June 28, the justices declined without comment to hear the appeal in Featherstone v. Columbus City SchoolDistrict (Case No. 03-10093).

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as High Court Bars Internet-Porn Statute From Taking Effect

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Students With Health Conditions Protected Under Federal Law, Education Department Stresses
Asthma, diabetes, allergies, and gastroesophageal reflux disease may trigger student protections under civil rights law.
4 min read
Close up of a medical chart in an unrecognizable female doctor's hands as she listens to an unrecognizable young adult woman sitting on nurse's table.
E+
Student Well-Being Q&A How Social Media May Benefit Teens' Mental Health
In an interview, a researcher outlines some of the less-discussed benefits teens get from their online activity.
4 min read
Internet And Social Media Speech Bubbles Concept
DigitalVision Vectors
Student Well-Being Q&A A Teachers' Guide for Managing Climate Anxiety in the Classroom
Experts share research-backed tips for teachers on how to respond to students' complicated feelings about climate change.
9 min read
Kid looking worried with a globe in background.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion There Is a Better Way for Students to Ask for Feedback
Adam Grant draws from a personal example to demonstrate how anyone can get more useful input.
Adam Grant
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty