Student Well-Being

Justices Weigh Law That Seeks To Curb Web Pornography

By Caroline Hendrie — March 10, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week over whether a federal law that aims to protect minors from online pornography is a reasonable attempt to rein in a runaway national problem or an unconstitutional infringement of Americans’ right to free speech.

The justices seemed divided over whether Congress made the right move when it enacted the Child Online Protection Act the year after the high court struck down an earlier law intended to address the problem.

The law imposes criminal and civil penalties on operators of commercial Web sites that provide minors access to sexually explicit material deemed harmful to children younger than 17. Web sites can avoid prosecution by requiring users to present proof of age, through such means as credit cards or adult-identification numbers. The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the law on behalf of an array of online magazines, booksellers, and others, contends that requiring such identification will drive away viewers, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg picked up on that theme in her questioning last week.

“The whole world can know about it if I give my credit card,” Justice Ginsburg said to Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, who defended the law during the March 2 arguments in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (Case No. 03- 218).

But Justice Stephen G. Breyer said during questioning of ACLU lawyer Ann E. Beeson that requiring Web sites to constrain access to pornography is not unlike using zoning laws to limit adult bookstores or strip clubs to certain areas of town. The effect of such zoning, he said, is to avoid censorship of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution, as long as it takes place in a restricted milieu.

“If that’s not a good solution, what is?” he asked Ms. Beeson.

And Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist suggested that constitutional rights do not necessarily come with privacy guarantees. “If you go buy a gun, you’re not guaranteed anonymity,” he noted.

‘A National Problem’

Ms. Beeson argued that Internet filters installed on home computers do a good job of protecting youngsters from online smut without violating the First Amendment, as she contends the online-protection act does.

“The government can’t burn down the house to roast the pig, especially when there are so many more-effective tools available,” she said.

But Mr. Olson said Internet filters can be easily shut off by tech-savvy teenagers. Web sites offering pornography are “growing exponentially,” he said, adding that he had typed the words “free porn” into a search engine recently and come up with more than 6 million sites.

“Eleven million children visit these porn sites every week,” he said. “This is a national problem. It’s serious. It’s causing irreparable injury to our most important resource: our children.”

Last year, the high court upheld the constitutionality of a related federal law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, that requires schools and libraries receiving federal E-rate funding to install filters to block out obscenity and child pornography for all users and, for minors, other material that is considered harmful to them. (“High Court Upholds Law on Internet Filtering in Libraries,” July 9, 2003.)

In the current case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked Mr. Olson whether better enforcement of federal anti-obscenity laws might not help address the problem that the Child Online Protection Act targets. He replied that “there may have been some lapses” but that federal prosecutors had been pressing more obscenity cases recently.

This is the second time the high court has considered the Child Online Protection Act. The justices sent the case back to a lower court for further proceedings in 2001. Last March, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, unanimously found the law unconstitutional. A decision is expected by July.

Related Tags:

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
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
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
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
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

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 Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.
Canva
Student Well-Being Social Media Bans Alone Won’t Improve Mental Health, Say Student Advocates
Students need safe spaces and supportive leaders to talk openly about mental health in their schools.
4 min read
Image of hands supporting one another. In the background are doodles of pressures, mental health, academics.
Laura Baker/Education Week with iStock/Getty