by Madi Burke and Bailey Vallee
In 1996, the Reno v. ACLU case captured the attention of concerned parents everywhere. This case not only set the stage for the future sphere of internet communications, but was also critical in establishing the relationship between government regulation and internet speech.
This case concerned the federal government’s enactment of the Community Decency Act that prevented children from accessing obscene or indecent online material. This act made it illegal to knowingly send or describe sexual activities to a minor online, and required individuals to take a good faith, reasonable effort to ensure that minors would not be exposed to such communications. Due to vagueness and questions regarding constitutionality, this act was highly problematic. On one side, Janet Reno fought for federal regulation of internet speech, and on the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union fought to uphold constitutional rights.
A review of the history surrounding the case will help shed light on the gravity it carried during its time.
The purpose of the internet was met with relative confusion after its creation in 1969. Time magazine caught wind of the confusion and posted a list of top sites in order to help the public understand how to better use the internet.
Internet ignorance didn’t last long, however. The idea that the internet was a platform created solely for scholars was quickly challenged. More people began to realize that the internet could be used as a platform to exchange dirty pictures and jokes.
It was this realization that sparked Congress’s concern for access to sexual content online by minors.
Internet support groups for parents of teenagers began popping up in 1997, dealing with how to navigate through both the benefits and dangers of the internet for minors.
President Bill Clinton echoed the sentiment of concerned parents in a 1996 speech: “We must give parents the tools they need to help protect their children from inappropriate material on the Internet, but we also must make sure that we protect the exploding global commercial potential of the Internet.”
Attorney Seth Waxman provided further reasoning for President Clinton’s caution in his case against ACLU. “All of the laws regulating the display of indecent materials … approach insignificance when the internet threatens to give every child with access to a connected computer a free pass into the equivalent of every adult bookstore and video store in the country,” said Waxman.
Most adult internet sites would attempt to limit minor’s “free pass” to internet sites by requiring a credit card to get beyond the home screen, or warning children of adult content. However, this didn’t stop many minors from finding creative ways to access adult sites.
Adult Internet site owners were finding that in order to compete in the growing marketplace of adult websites, they had to become raunchier and raunchier. But what was it about raunchy sites that engendered popularity, and why was the internet becoming a platform for explicit material? The questions are answered with an understanding of cultural shifts that occurred during the entrance of the internet into society.
The birth of the internet was accompanied by the birth of techno music– a genre indicative of an upcoming culture that was critical of politics, social change, and just about anything else. Techno music marked a movement away from the cultural worship of humans and a movement towards a cultural worship of the machine.
There was a general awareness in 1996 that people were acting younger than their age, and embracing youthful culture. One child psychiatrist named Robert Coles titled this phenomena the “second adolescence.”
The second adolescence could be attributed to a period of economic prosperity following the end of the cold war that produced society-wide complacence and a lack of interest on moral issues.
Whatever the reason for this reluctance towards growing up, it was clear that society in the later 1990s was more oriented towards new beginnings and having fun than maintaining traditional values.
This was the cultural context that set the stage for Reno v. ACLU,
In the end, the court ruled that first amendment rights apply just as much to the internet as they do anything else.
Justice John Stevens delivers the opinion of the court in 1997: “While we do not question in the slightest the legitimacy and importance of the interest in protecting minors from harmful materials of this kind … we have concluded that both of the challenged provisions are unconstitutional.”