1997 June 26

Communications Decency Act Held Unconstitutional


The 1996 Communications Decency Act (enacted on February 8, 1996) was a sweeping censorship law designed to protect minors from obscene or indecent material on the Internet. The terms of the law were so vague, however, that they threatened discussions of sex education, homosexuality, literary works with sexual themes. The law provided criminal penalties for anyone sending over the internet to someone under the age of 18 “any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.”

The ACLU, in a coalition with 19 other groups, filed a challenge on the day the law took effect and it was immediately enjoined. In Reno v. ACLU, decided on this day, the Supreme Court declared the law an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. The law was never at any time in effect.

The Court: “The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal. As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”

Learn more at the Electronic Privacy Information Center: http://epic.org/free_speech/cda/

Read more on sex, indecency and censorship: Nadine Strossen, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights (2000)

Watch former ACLU President Nadine Strossen discuss pornography and violence against women: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU7r_NZZUsw

Learn more about the myths and facts about pornography: Marcia Pally, Sense and Censorship: The Vanity of the Bonfires (1991), http://mediacoalition.org/files/Sense-and-Censorship.pdf

See a complete list of the plaintiffs in Reno v. ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/complete-list-aclu-v-reno-plaintiffs-and-their-affidavits

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