The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a law aimed at curbing children’s access to online pornography is too broad and probably impedes upon the rights of adults to see and buy what they want on the internet.

The high court divided 5-to-4 over the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a law passed in 1998, signed by then-President Clinton, and now backed by the Bush administration. The majority said a lower court was correct to block the law–which would have made it a crime for commercial operations to knowingly place objectionable material within the reach of children on the web–from taking effect, because it likely violates the First Amendment.

The court did not end the long fight over the law, however. The majority sent the case back to a lower court for a trial that could give the government a chance to prove the law does not go too far.

In a press conference with reporters, Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology and a leading voice of opposition to the law, called the decision a “clear victory for internet free speech.”

Looking at what he called “the global nature of the internet,” Berman said, the court provided the government with a “hard burden” in proving that COPA would not restrict the rights of parents to decide what materials their children should have access to online.

Elliot Mincberg, general counsel for the People for the American Way, which also opposed the law, agreed, saying the court recognizes that parents should be allowed to make those decisions for their children–not “Big Brother government.”

But some educators might not agree with the decision. As it stands, the ruling could make school leaders’ jobs a little harder in keeping children from accessing pornography online.

The majority of the Court, led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said there have been important technological advances in the five years since a federal judge first blocked the law.

Holding a new trial also will allow discussion of what technology, if any, might allow adults to see and buy material that is legal for them while keeping that material out of the hands of children.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with Kennedy.

In his argument to the Court, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson called COPA a reasonable solution to the proliferation of online pornography and said the law targeted commercial pornographers who often use sexually explicit “teasers” to lure customers. (See article: Supreme Court to revisit COPA.)

The free teasers are available to nearly anyone surfing the internet, children and adults alike. The pictures sometimes appear even when computer users are not seeking out pornography. The teasers typically lead potential customers to a web site that may require payment and age verification. But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other critics of the anti-pornography law said that COPA would restrict far too much material that adults may legally see and buy.

The law, which never took effect, would have authorized fines up to $50,000 for the crime of placing material that is “harmful to minors” within the easy reach of children on the internet.

It also would have required adults to use access codes or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online.

For now, the law would sweep with too broad a brush, Kennedy said.

“There is a potential for extraordinary harm and a serious chill upon protected speech” if the law took effect, he wrote in the majority’s decision.

Kennedy said that filtering software “is not a perfect solution to the problem of children gaining access to harmful-to-minors materials.” But so far, he said, the government has failed to prove that other technologies would work better.

One educator who spoke with eSchool News said she had mixed reactions to the decision.

Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Shillington, Pa., said filtering systems would be ideal were it not for students’ proven ability to circumvent such safeguards in minutes.

“We run filters on web sites,” Becker said. “But [I’ve] watched 10-year-old students circumvent the filter by working from Google’s images.”

Still, she said, “censorship is risky.”

To date, she said, the best form of online protection remains a strong education. Educators need to teach students about the dangers of the internet, she added. At Governor Mifflin, each student is expected to adhere to an online behavior code.

The ruling in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union was the last of nearly 80 cases decided in a busy court term. The year’s marquee cases involving presidential power in dealing with suspected terrorist were announced June 28, and mostly represented a loss for the Bush administration.

The June 29 pornography ruling is more nuanced, but still a blow to the government. It marks the third time the high court has considered the case, and it might not be the last.

Congress had tried repeatedly to find a way to protect web-surfing children from smut without running afoul of the First Amendment.

The justices unanimously struck down the first version of a child-protection law passed in 1996, just as the internet was becoming a commonplace means of communication, research, and entertainment.

Congress responded by passing COPA, saying the new law met the Supreme Court’s free-speech standards.

The ACLU challenged COPA immediately, arguing that the replacement law was every bit as unconstitutional as the original. The ACLU said the law could make criminals of many people who use the internet for legitimate, often health-related reasons. Those who operate web sites about gynecology and safe sex could be held liable, as could Mitch Tepper, who posts explicit how-to sexual advice for disabled people, the ACLU claimed.

The law has been tied up in the courts ever since.

Last year, the High Court upheld another law designed to protect children from internet pornography. The Child Internet Protection Act requires schools and libraries to install filtering technology before receiving federal eRate discounts on connectivity.

Links:

American Civil Liberties Union

U.S. Department of Justice

U.S. Supreme Court: 2003 Term Opinions of the Court