The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a law aimed at curbing children’s access to online pornography tramples the rights of adults to see or buy what they want on the internet.

The high court already has struck down one attempt by Congress to shield children from internet pornography. In addition to protecting children, the first law would have prevented adults from viewing the material, the court ruled in 1997.

Congress tried again a year later, when it passed the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued a day after then-President Clinton signed the act into law. Lower federal courts in Pennsylvania found the law was unconstitutional and blocked its enforcement, pending a final court ruling.

Although this latest attempt would impose fewer restrictions, civil liberties groups challenged it on the same First Amendment grounds the high court found persuasive before.

“We do believe this case is nearly identical,” said Ann Beeson, a lawyer for the ACLU.

Sexually explicit words and pictures that are deemed indecent but not obscene are protected by the First Amendment. COPA would make it a crime for commercial operations to knowingly place objectionable material within the unrestricted reach of children on the world wide web.

“We’re talking about material that would be harmful to minors. That is a test we have applied for years in the real world,” said Robert Flores, vice president of the National Law Center for Children and Families.

“If you walk into a bookstore, the pornography is wrapped, behind a blinder, or will be in a place where it is difficult for young children to reach it,” said Flores, whose group filed a friend-of-the court brief on the government’s behalf.

The difference, of course, is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore or sex shop can physically restrict what a child could see, while allowing those over 18 to browse at will.

Age restrictions are trickier online, as the court observed in its first ruling striking down a major portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Filtering software is one option, but even some supporters of that technology say it is not failsafe. Special access codes or registration systems for adult users are another option, and this is the one Congress settled on in 1998.

The law requires commercial web sites to collect a credit card number or an access code as proof of age before allowing internet users to view online material deemed “harmful to minors.”

In an attempt to clear the Supreme Court hurdle, COPA defines indecency much more specifically. It also limits prosecution to commercial material found on the world wide web, as opposed to the wider online terrain of eMail and some chat rooms.

The ACLU and a group of bookstores, web site operators, and others say the new law would make it risky to offer online sex advice, as the online magazine Salon does, or to participate in racy online chats.

The legislation sets out criminal penalties of up to six months in jail or civil fines of up to $50,000 for failing to ensure that only adult eyes will see adult material offered commercially online.

“It would send adults to prison for commercial speech that is unquestionably protected for them,” the ACLU’s Beeson said.

The justices are expected to hear the case and issue a decision during the court term that begins in October.

The case is the second involving online pornography and children that the court has agreed to hear in the coming term. The other case tests bans on computer simulations that appear to depict children having sex.

Last year, Congress passed another law designed to protect children from internet pornography. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries to install filtering technology before receiving federal eRate discounts on connectivity this fall.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in federal court to block CIPA’s enforcement as well, but no decision has been issued yet.

The COPA case is Ashcroft v. ACLU, 00-1293.

Links:

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

National Law Center for Children and Families
http://www.nationallawcenter.org