IT Infrastructure & Management

High Court Hears Arguments In Internet Pornography Case

By Mark Walsh — December 05, 2001 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Arguing that Internet pornography is “readily accessible to children,” the Bush administration urged the U.S. Supreme Court last week to uphold a federal law designed to protect minors from sexually explicit material on the World Wide Web.

“As long as they can type and read, [children] can find it, and they find it by accident,” Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson told the justices.

But an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer argued that in adopting the Child Online Protection Act in 1998, Congress once again failed to come up with a constitutional method of regulating sexually explicit material on the Web.

Under the law’s requirement that “contemporary community standards” be used to judge whether material is harmful to minors, “the least tolerant community would get to set the standards for the Web,” ACLU lawyer Ann E. Beeson told the justices during the Nov. 28 oral arguments in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (Case No. 00-1293).

In 1997, the high court struck down key provisions of the Communications Decency Act, the first effort by Congress to regulate indecent material on the Internet. The decision in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union was unanimous in most respects, with a suggestion from the court’s opinions that a law that did not sweep as broadly as that one might pass constitutional muster.

With the Child Online Protection Act, Congress targeted its efforts at commercial pornographers, especially those that offer “teasers” giving Web surfers a glimpse of the sexually explicit material available beyond a wall requiring credit-card payments or other adult verification.

The law was immediately challenged by the ACLU and a coalition of Web businesses that are not primarily engaged in displaying pornography but that feared they could face prosecution. Those include the online magazine Salon; PlanetOut.com, a Web site for the gay community; Condomania, an online seller of condoms and other “safe sex” materials; and others.

Both a federal district court in Philadelphia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, also in Philadelphia, blocked the law from taking effect, ruling that it was likely a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

The appeals court based its ruling on the statute’s reliance on community standards for determining whether commercial material on the Web was harmful to minors. That issue was central during the arguments last week before the Supreme Court.

‘Las Vegas’ Standard?

Several justices asked the lawyers whether the law, despite its adoption of a community-standards test from the court’s own obscenity cases of the 1970’s, would really create more of a national standard for evaluating whether Web material was harmful to minors.

Some justices appeared to be trying to salvage the law by narrowing its construction to the idea of a national standard, and Mr. Olson embraced the idea.

“We’re now in an era of national television and national media,” the solicitor general said. “We’re talking about the Internet reaching millions and millions of households.”

Nevertheless, he said, jurors evaluating a case under the law would draw on their own experiences, “which necessarily come from their own community.”

Justice Antonin Scalia asked whether that meant a North Carolina jury evaluating “a pornographic transmission” would have to “apply the standards of Las Vegas.”

Ms. Beeson of the ACLU was adamant in arguing that construing a national standard for what is harmful to minors into the law would not save it from unconstitutionality.

“This statute has a very strong deterrent effect” on speech that is unquestionably legal for adults to receive, she said.

She said that a Congressional commission had found that the most effective way to keep sexually explicit Web material away from children was for parents to use so-called filtering software.

Justice Scalia responded that Congress could not dictate that parents install filters. Moreover, Mr. Olson argued during his rebuttal, the government has an independent interest in protecting children from pornography regardless of the actions or attitudes of parents.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the opinion striking down the Communications Decency Act, appeared more sympathetic this time around to Congress’ goal of keeping sexually explicit material away from children.

“There is a genuine problem that Congress is trying to address,” he told Ms. Beeson.

The case should be decided by next June.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as High Court Hears Arguments In Internet Pornography Case

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
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
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 Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

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 & Management One Solution to Maintaining 1-to-1 Devices? Pay Students to Repair Them
Hiring students to help with the repair process is one way school districts are ensuring the sustainability of their 1-to-1 programs.
4 min read
Sawyer Wendt, a student intern for the Altoona school district’s IT department, repairs a Chromebook.
Sawyer Wendt, who's been a student intern for the Altoona district's tech department since junior year, is now studying IT software development in college.
Courtesy of Jevin Stangel, IT technician for the Altoona school district
IT Infrastructure & Management Schools Get Relief on Chromebook Replacements. Google Extends Device Support to 10 Years
Schools have typically had to replace Chromebooks every three to five years.
4 min read
Photo of teacher working with student on laptop computer.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
IT Infrastructure & Management What We Know About District Tech Leaders, in Charts
Male chief technology officers in K-12 tend to come from technological backgrounds while most female tech leaders are former teachers.
1 min read
Illustration concept of leadership, using wooden cut-out figures and arrows.
Liz Yap/Education Week via Canva
IT Infrastructure & Management How Schools Can Avoid Wasting Money on Technology
A district leader shares ways to ensure ed-tech tools are worth the investment.
2 min read
Illustration of laptop with checklist on the screen
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty