Reno: Congress tries again with COPA

by Trevor Forsell and Amanda Lacayo

When the internet became available to the public in 1991, it became necessary to appeal to the compelling interest of protecting children from indecent or obscene material on the internet as well as maintaining the right to free speech.

Congress’ first attempt to make the Internet safe for minors was through the Communications Decency Act in 1996. This law made it a crime to distribute online material deemed indecent or patently offensive to minors “as measured by community standards.” In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled in Reno v. ACLU that the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional censorship.

In 1998, Congress tried again through enacting The Child Online Protection Act (COPA). This law criminalized online commercial distribution of material deemed harmful to minors.

Ashcroft v. ACLU is the modern application of Reno v. ACLU. In 2004, the Supreme Court concluded in a 5-4 decision that COPA restricted too much protected speech. The law used a method that was not the least restrictive available, and COPA could cause a chilling effect for online publishers. The Court suggested that parents to use filtering to restrict speech on the receiving end rather than blocking the source.

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