In the wake of a federal judge’s decision to halt a federal law aimed at protecting children from online pornography, lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department were considering whether to appeal or ask for a full-blown trial.

U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed issued a preliminary injunction Feb. 1 to continue blocking enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) just six hours before the measure was to take effect.

The injunction shields web site operators from prosecution under the law. It also paves the way for a full trial this spring, unless the Justice Department decides to appeal Reed’s decision.

At press time, Justice Department officials were reviewing the decision to determine their next move. The law’s lead sponsors, however, urged the department to continue its defense through the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I look forward to a favorable judgment at the appellate level–a day that will be celebrated by millions of parents across the nation,” said Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., who co-sponsored the law.

Plaintiffs in the case, meanwhile, hailed the decision as a sign they are likely to prevail wherever the case ends up next.

“We’re thrilled that the judge has realized at this stage that our clients have some very credible fears,” American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman Emily Whitfield said.

Chilling effect

In issuing his injunction, Reed said the law could have the “chilling effect” of hindering constitutionally protected speech.

“While the public certainly has an interest in protecting its minors, the public interest is not served by the enforcement of an unconstitutional law,” he wrote in his decision.

The ACLU had filed suit against the law on behalf of 17 clients. One of the clients’ arguments was that their fears of prosecution under the law would result in self-censorship.

Despite expressing “personal regret” that his decision would “delay once again the careful protection of our children,” Reed concluded, “Such fears are reasonable given the breadth of the statute.”

Harmful to minors

The law, the second major effort by Congress to protect children on the internet, would require commercial web sites to collect a credit card number or some other access code as proof of age before allowing internet users to view online material “harmful to minors.”

Violators would face penalties of up to six months in jail and $150,000 per day in fines.

Supporters say the measure, signed by President Clinton in October, is a sensible way to keep internet pornography away from children. Unlike the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which the Supreme Court struck down, the new law applies only to commercial web sites.

Brown paper wrapper

Reed had temporarily blocked enforcement of the law in November. In a six-day hearing before Reed in January, the Justice Department argued that the law would act as a “brown paper wrapper” protecting children from pornographic material.

The government also maintained that requiring web sites to install checkpoint areas in front of pornographic material would be easy and inexpensive and would not hurt their businesses.

“We’re disappointed,” said J. Robert Flores, senior counsel for the National Law Center for Children and Families. “Once again, children and families are left entirely on their own to protect themselves from the pornography industry.”

The ACLU, however, argued that the law violates the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee and could be used to unfairly prosecute gays and lesbians, AIDS activists, or doctors distributing gynecological information.

The ACLU also said checkpoints could be costly and would deter people from visiting affected web sites, putting some out of business.

American Civil Liberties Union

http://www.aclu.org

U.S. Justice Department

http://www.usdoj.gov

Rep. James C. Greenwood

http://www.house.gov/greenwood