Tamas Szalay on Thu, 13 Jun 96 17:13 MDT

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nettime: Internet obscenity curb blocked

   US judges stop enforcement of act in victory for free speech campaign

                        Internet obscenity curb blocked

  A US panel of judges yesterday ruled that a law limiting distribution of
pornography on the Internet was unconstitutional. The court issued a
temporary order halting enforcement of the act. 

  The decision represents a clear victory for advocates of free speech and
civil Iiberties groups seeking to prevent government regulation of the
Internet, a global web of computer networks that links an estimated 58m
computer users. 

  The panel of three judges in Philadelphia granted a prelimilary
injunction against enforcenent of portions of the Communications Decency
Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in February.

  The ruling sets the stage either for a trial on whether the act should
be permanently blocked, or a direct appeal to the Supreme Court. The
Justice Department has yet to say how it will proceed with the case. 

  The law was aimed at preventing distribution of "indecent" or "patently
offensive" material to children over computer networks. In a unanimous
decision the court ruled, however, that there is no effective way for
online services and access providers to determine the ages of individual

  Moreover, the judges issued strong statements in defence of freedom of
speech on the Internet. "The Internet may fairly be regarded as a
never-ending worldwide conversation," US District Judge Stewart Dalzell
said in his opinion. "The government may not, through the CDA, interrupt
that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet
developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental

  The court allowed to stand prohibitions against obscenity and child
pornography, both of which are excluded from the US constitutional
protection of free speech and were not challenged by opponents of the act. 

  The preliminary injunction was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by
the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 20 individuals and
organisations, including free-speech advocates and others representing the
computer online industry, libraries and publishers. 

  "This is a decision of inestimable historic importance," said Ms
Marjorie Heins, a member of the legal team who argued the case on behalf
of the ACLU. 

  "It's only a handful of times in a century that a court is called upon
to decide what the rules will be in a new communications medium," said Mr
Christopher Hansen, another ACLU lawyer. 

 "Today's decision that no matter what the medium, the message should be
protected by the First Amendment." 

  Ms Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
a civil liberties group that was one of the plaintiffs in the case, said:
"We are delighted that the court has gone beyond striking down the law,
and has stated positively what constitutional principles must govern any
attempt to regulate the most democratic mass medium. the world has ever

By Louise Kehoe in San Francisco

Financial Times, June 13 1996

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