IT Infrastructure

Court Leaves Future of Online-Protection Law Uncertain

By Mark Walsh — May 22, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court last week partially upheld a federal statute designed to protect children from pornography on the World Wide Web, but its splintered ruling sent the law back to a lower court for further review and left doubt about whether it would ultimately be upheld.

At issue in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (Case No. 00-1293) was the Child Online Protection Act, a 1999 statute that makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to make sexually explicit materials available to minors. The law seeks to restrict “material that is harmful to minors” based on “contemporary community standards.”

No opinion of the court commanded a majority, but Justice Clarence Thomas said in the main opinion that the law’s reliance on community standards did not automatically render it in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, had ruled.

The Supreme Court continued to bar the law from taking effect and ordered the 3rd Circuit court to consider several other issues raised in the challenge to the law by free-speech advocates.

“The scope of our decision today is quite limited,” Justice Thomas said in the May 13 ruling.

Only Justice John Paul Stevens said he would uphold the 3rd Circuit ruling that struck down the statute on its face. He said a community standard, which comes from the court’s obscenity decisions of the 1970s, could not be applied to the borderless world of cyberspace.

“In the context of the Internet, ... community standards become a sword, rather than a shield,” Justice Stevens said. “If a prurient appeal is offensive in a Puritan village, it may be a crime to post it on the World Wide Web.”

The case points up the difficulty of regulating speech on the Internet. The high court in 1997 struck down Congress’ first attempt to protect children from sexually explicit material online. It said the 1996 Communication Decency Act suppressed a large amount of speech that was legal for adults to receive.

The Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, was challenged by a coalition of free-speech advocates and commercial Web site operators, who argued that it was still overly broad. The 3rd Circuit court ruled that because Web sites cannot limit their reach by geography, the law’s reliance on community standards for determining what would be harmful to minors made it unconstitutional.

Four separate Supreme Court opinions in the case agreed only that the 3rd Circuit should give COPA a more thorough review. Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, said the community-standards approach could be workable without violating the First Amendment.

Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen G. Breyer each wrote opinions suggesting that the First Amendment would require the law to define a national standard for what materials on the Web would be harmful to minors.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an opinion joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, raised doubts that the law would ultimately be upheld. He also raised the issue of how to apply the requirement, from the court’s obscenity cases, of evaluating a challenged work “as a whole” when the work at issue was a Web site.

Sex Discrimination

Separately last week, the court declined to hear the appeal by female athletes who unsuccessfully sought damages from the University of Minnesota in a Title IX case over sports equity.

Six former athletes alleged in a lawsuit that the university’s Duluth campus violated Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds, by maintaining unequal sports opportunities for women.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that the women could not win damages. The 8th Circuit court said the university was not “deliberately indifferent” to its Title IX compliance obligations because it was responsive to a complaint from the federal Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

The appeal was Grandson v. University of Minnesota (No. 01-1261).

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Court Leaves Future of Online-Protection Law Uncertain

Events

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
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Teaching Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: How Can We Help Students Feel Connected to School?
Get strategies for your struggles with student engagement. Bring questions for our expert panel. Help students recover the joy of 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
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

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

IT Infrastructure Internet on School Buses: FCC Eyes E-Rate Change to Expand Access
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal that would allow the use of federal E-rate funding for Wi-Fi in school buses.
2 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in the Texas school system.
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
IT Infrastructure Stopping Cyberattacks Is Top Priority for Ed-Tech Leaders. But Many Underestimate the Risk
Most K-12 district tech leaders rate common cybersecurity threats as just low or medium risk, survey shows.
4 min read
Images shows a symbolic lock on a technical background.
iStock/Getty
IT Infrastructure Spotlight Spotlight on Infrastructure Modernization
This Spotlight will help you grasp the reality of school infrastructure, parent privacy concerns, watchdog recommendations and more.
IT Infrastructure The Infrastructure Bill Includes Billions for Broadband. What It Would Mean for Students
Students who struggle to access the internet at home may get some relief through $65 billion in funding for broadband, approved by Congress in the new infrastructure bill.
2 min read
Chromebooks, to be loaned to students in the Elk Grove Unified School District, await distribution at Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove, Calif., on April 2, 2020.
Even as school-issued devices such as Chromebooks, shown above, have proliferated in the pandemic, many students still lack internet access at home, putting them at a disadvantage for completing homework assignments.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP