First Amendment in Cyberspace - Unit 1
Eric B. Easton, University of Baltimore School of Law
Unit 1 | Unit 2 | Unit 3 | Unit 4 | Unit 5 | Unit 6
When Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the dominant issues involved competition between local and
long-distance telephone companies, between broadcasters and cable television advertisers, and between all of the above
and consumers. Title V, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), was added at the behest of Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.),
whose "Blue Book" of collected Internet smut made a vote against the CDA seem like a vote for pornography. Despite
widespread opposition from the Cyberspace community, and initial rejection by the House of Representatives, the CDA was
enacted.(1) Its constitutionality was challenged immediately by a coalition of activists led by the American Civil Liberties
The statute itself prescribed that any such challenge be heard by a three-judge district court, and plaintiffs sought a
preliminary injunction against enforcement from a court comprising Dolores K. Sloviter, Chief Judge of the U. S. Court of
Appeals for the Third Circuit; and Judges Ronald L. Buckwalter and Stewart Dalzell of the U.S. District Court for the
Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The statute itself prescribed that any such challenge be heard by a three-judge district court, and plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction against enforcement from a court comprising Dolores K. Sloviter, Chief Judge of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; and Judges Ronald L. Buckwalter and Stewart Dalzell of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
1. See Robert Cannon, The Legislative History of Senator Exon's Communications Decency Act: Regulating Barbarians on
the Information Superhighway, 49 Fed. Comm. L.J. 51, 64-73 (1996).
1. See Robert Cannon, The Legislative History of Senator Exon's Communications Decency Act: Regulating Barbarians on the Information Superhighway, 49 Fed. Comm. L.J. 51, 64-73 (1996).
American Civil Liberties Union, et al. v. Janet Reno
929 F. Supp. 824 (E.D.Pa. 1996)
Before us are motions for a preliminary injunction filed by plaintiffs who challenge on constitutional grounds provisions of
the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA or the Act), which constitutes Title V of the Telecommunications Act of
1996, signed into law by the President on February 8, 1996. Telecommunications Act of 1996 [47 U.S.C. § 223(a)-(h)].
Plaintiffs include various organizations and individuals who, inter alia, are associated with the computer and/or
communications industries, or who publish or post materials on the Internet, or belong to various citizen groups.
The defendants in these actions are Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States, and the United States Department
of Justice. For convenience, we will refer to these defendants as the Government. Plaintiffs contend that the two challenged
provisions of the CDA that are directed to communications over the Internet which might be deemed "indecent" or "patently
offensive" for minors, defined as persons under the age of eighteen, infringe upon rights protected by the First Amendment
and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
* * * On February 15, 1996, following an evidentiary hearing, Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter, to whom the case had been
assigned, granted a limited temporary restraining order, finding in a Memorandum that 47 U.S.C. § 223(a)(1)(B) ("the
indecency provision" of the CDA) was unconstitutionally vague. On the same day, Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, Chief
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, having been requested by the parties and the district court
to convene a three-judge court, pursuant to § 561(a) of the CDA, appointed such a court consisting of, in addition to Judge
Buckwalter, Judge Stewart Dalzell of the same district, and herself, as the circuit judge required by 28 U.S.C. § 2284.
* * *
Statutory Provisions at Issue
Plaintiffs focus their challenge on two provisions of section 502 of the CDA which amend 47 U.S.C. §§ 223(a) and 223(d).
Section 223(a)(1)(B) provides in part that any person in interstate or foreign communications who, "by means of a
telecommunications device," "knowingly ... makes, creates, or solicits" and "initiates the transmission" of "any comment,
request, suggestion, proposal, image or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the
communication is under 18 years of age," "shall be criminally fined or imprisoned."
Section 223(d)(1) ("the patently offensive provision"), makes it a crime to use an "interactive computer service" to "send" or
"display in a manner available" to a person under age 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, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated
Plaintiffs also challenge on the same grounds the provisions in § 223(a)(2) and § 223(d)(2), which make it a crime for anyone
to "knowingly permit any telecommunications facility under [his or her] control to be used for any activity prohibited" in §§
223(a)(1)(B) and 223(d)(1). The challenged provisions impose a punishment of a fine, up to two years imprisonment, or both
for each offense.
Plaintiffs make clear that they do not quarrel with the statute to the extent that it covers obscenity or child pornography,
which were already proscribed before the CDA's adoption. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1464-65 (criminalizing obscene material); id.
§§ 2251-52 (criminalizing child pornography); see also New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1113, 102 S. Ct.
3348 (1982); Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 37 L. Ed. 2d 419, 93 S. Ct. 2607 (1973).
* * *
As part of its argument that the CDA passes constitutional muster, the Government cites the CDA's "safe harbor" defenses in
new § 223(e) of 47 U.S.C., which provides:
In addition to any other defenses available by law:
(1) No person shall be held to have violated subsection (a) or (d) of this section solely for providing access or connection
to or from a facility, system, or network not under that person's control, including transmission, downloading, intermediate
storage, access software, or other related capabilities that are incidental to providing such access or connection that does not
include the creation of the content of the communication.
(5) It is a defense to a prosecution under subsection (a)(1)(B) or (d) of this section, or under subsection (a)(2) of this
section with respect to the use of a facility for an activity under subsection (a)(1)(B) that a person -
(A) has taken, in good faith, reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions under the circumstances to restrict or prevent
access by minors to a communication specified in such subsections, which may involve any appropriate measures to
restrict minors from such communications, including any method which is feasible under available technology; or
(B) has restricted access to such communication by requiring use of a verified credit card, debit account, adult access
code, or adult personal identification number.
(6) The [Federal Communications] Commission may describe measures which are reasonable, effective, and appropriate
to restrict access to prohibited communications under subsection (d) of this section. Nothing in this section authorizes the
Commission to enforce, or is intended to provide the Commission with the authority to approve, sanction, or permit, the use
of such measures. The Commission shall have no enforcement authority over the failure to utilize such measures. ...
II. FINDINGS OF FACT (Omitted; see Module I.)
III. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
Plaintiffs have established a reasonable probability of eventual success in the litigation by demonstrating that §§ 223(a)(1)(B)
and 223(a)(2) of the CDA are unconstitutional on their face to the extent that they reach indecency. Sections 223(d)(1) and
223(d)(2) of the CDA are unconstitutional on their face. Accordingly, plaintiffs have shown irreparable injury, no party has
any interest in the enforcement of an unconstitutional law, and therefore the public interest will be served by granting the
preliminary injunction. The motions for preliminary injunction will therefore be granted.
The views of the members of the Court in support of these conclusions follow.
SLOVITER, Chief Judge, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit:
* * *
C. Applicable Standard of Review
The CDA is patently a government-imposed content-based restriction on speech, and the speech at issue, whether
denominated "indecent" or "patently offensive," is entitled to constitutional protection. See Sable Communications of
California, Inc. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989). As such, the regulation is subject to strict scrutiny, and will only be
upheld if it is justified by a compelling government interest and if it is narrowly tailored to effectuate that interest. Sable, 492
U.S. at 126. "The benefit gained [by a content-based restriction] must outweigh the loss of constitutionally protected rights."
The government's position on the applicable standard has been less than pellucid but, despite some references to a somewhat
lesser burden employed in broadcasting cases, it now appears to have conceded that it has the burden of proof to show both
a compelling interest and that the statute regulates least restrictively. In any event, the evidence and our Findings of Fact
based thereon show that Internet communication, while unique, is more akin to telephone communication, at issue in Sable,
than to broadcasting, at issue in [FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)], because, as with the telephone, an
Internet user must act affirmatively and deliberately to retrieve specific information online. Even if a broad search will, on
occasion, retrieve unwanted materials, the user virtually always receives some warning of its content, significantly reducing
the element of surprise or "assault" involved in broadcasting. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a very young child will be
randomly "surfing" the Web and come across "indecent" or "patently offensive" material.
* * *
D. The Nature of the Government's Interest
The Government asserts that shielding minors from access to indecent materials is the compelling interest supporting the
CDA. It cites in support the statements of the Supreme Court that "it is evident beyond the need for elaboration that a
State's interest in 'safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of a minor' is 'compelling,'" New York v. Ferber,
458 U.S. 747, 757 (1982), and "there is a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of
minors. This interest extends to shielding minors from the influence of literature that is not obscene by adult standards."
Sable, 492 U.S. at 126.
Those statements were made in cases where the potential harm to children from the material was evident. Ferber involved
the constitutionality of a statute which prohibited persons from knowingly promoting sexual performances by children under
16 and distributing material depicting such performances. Sable ... involved the FCC's ban on "dial-a-porn" (dealing by
definition with pornographic telephone messages). In contrast to the material at issue in those cases, at least some of the
material subject to coverage under the "indecent" and "patently offensive" provisions of the CDA may contain valuable
literary, artistic or educational information of value to older minors as well as adults. The Supreme Court has held that
"minors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection, and only in relatively narrow and well-defined
circumstances may government bar public dissemination of protected materials to them."
* * *
I am far less confident than the Government that its quotations from earlier cases in the Supreme Court signify that it has
shown a compelling interest in regulating the vast range of online material covered or potentially covered by the CDA.
Nonetheless, I acknowledge that there is certainly a compelling government interest to shield a substantial number of minors
from some of the online material that motivated Congress to enact the CDA, and do not rest my decision on the inadequacy
of the Government's showing in this regard.
E. The Reach of the Statute
Whatever the strength of the interest the Government has demonstrated in preventing minors from accessing "indecent" and
"patently offensive" material online, if the means it has chosen sweeps more broadly than necessary and thereby chills the
expression of adults, it has overstepped onto rights protected by the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs argue that the CDA violates the First Amendment because it effectively bans a substantial category of
protected speech from most parts of the Internet. The Government responds that the Act does not on its face or in effect ban
indecent material that is constitutionally protected for adults. Thus one of the factual issues before us was the likely effect of
the CDA on the free availability of constitutionally protected material. A wealth of persuasive evidence, referred to in detail
in the Findings of Fact, proved that it is either technologically impossible or economically prohibitive for many of the
plaintiffs to comply with the CDA without seriously impeding their posting of online material which adults have a
constitutional right to access.
With the possible exception of an e-mail to a known recipient, most content providers cannot determine the identity and age
of every user accessing their material. Considering separately content providers that fall roughly into two categories, we have
found that no technology exists which allows those posting on the category of newsgroups, mail exploders or chat rooms to
screen for age. Speakers using those forms of communication cannot control who receives the communication, and in most
instances are not aware of the identity of the recipients. If it is not feasible for speakers who communicate via these forms of
communication to conduct age screening, they would have to reduce the level of communication to that which is appropriate
for children in order to be protected under the statute. This would effect a complete ban even for adults of some expression,
albeit "indecent," to which they are constitutionally entitled, and thus would be unconstitutional under the holding in Sable.
Even as to content providers in the other broad category, such as the World Wide Web, where efforts at age verification are
technically feasible through the use of Common Gateway Interface (cgi) scripts (which enable creation of a document that
can process information provided by a Web visitor), the Findings of Fact show that as a practical matter, non-commercial
organizations and even many commercial organizations using the Web would find it prohibitively expensive and burdensome
to engage in the methods of age verification proposed by the Government, and that even if they could attempt to age verify,
there is little assurance that they could successfully filter out minors.
The Government attempts to circumvent this problem by seeking to limit the scope of the statute to those content providers
who are commercial pornographers, and urges that we do likewise in our obligation to save a congressional enactment from
facial unconstitutionality wherever possible. But in light of its plain language and its legislative history, the CDA cannot
reasonably be read as limited to commercial pornographers. A court may not impose a narrowing construction on a statute
unless it is "readily susceptible" to such a construction. The court may not "rewrite a . . . law to conform it to constitutional
requirements." * * *
It is clear from the face of the CDA and from its legislative history that Congress did not intend to limit its application to
commercial purveyors of pornography. Congress unquestionably knew how to limit the statute to such entities if that was its
intent, and in fact it did so in provisions relating to dial-a-porn services. It placed no similar limitation in the CDA.
Moreover, the Conference Report makes clear that Congress did not intend to limit the application of the statute to content
providers such as those which make available the commercial material contained in the government's exhibits, and confirms
that Congress intended "content regulation of both commercial and non-commercial providers."
The scope of the CDA is not confined to material that has a prurient interest or appeal, one of the hallmarks of obscenity,
because Congress sought to reach farther. Nor did Congress include language that would define "patently offensive" or
"indecent" to exclude material of serious value. It follows that to narrow the statute in the manner the Government urges
would be an impermissible exercise of our limited judicial function, which is to review the statute as written for its
compliance with constitutional mandates.
I conclude inexorably from the foregoing that the CDA reaches speech subject to the full protection of the First Amendment,
at least for adults. In questions of the witnesses and in colloquy with the Government attorneys, it became evident that even
if "indecent" is read as parallel to "patently offensive," the terms would cover a broad range of material from contemporary
films, plays and books showing or describing sexual activities (e.g., Leaving Las Vegas) to controversial contemporary art
and photographs showing sexual organs in positions that the Government conceded would be patently offensive in some
communities (e.g., a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph depicting a man with an erect penis).
We have also found that there is no effective way for many Internet content providers to limit the effective reach of the CDA
to adults because there is no realistic way for many providers to ascertain the age of those accessing their materials. As a
consequence, we have found that "many speakers who display arguably indecent content on the Internet must choose
between silence and the risk of prosecution." Such a choice, forced by sections 223(a) and (d) of the CDA, strikes at the
heart of speech of adults as well as minors.
F. Whether CDA is Narrowly Tailored
In the face of such a patent intrusion on a substantial category of protected speech for adults, there is some irony in
considering whether the statute is narrowly tailored or, as sometimes put, whether Congress has used the least restrictive
means to achieve a compelling government interest. It would appear that the extent of the abridgement of the protected
speech of adults that it has been shown the CDA would effect is too intrusive to be outweighed by the Government's
asserted interest, whatever its strength, in protecting minors from access to indecent material. Nonetheless, the formulation
of the inquiry requires that we consider the Government's assertion that the statute is narrowly drafted, and I proceed to do
In this case, the Government relies on the statutory defenses for its argument of narrow tailoring. There are a number of
reasons why I am not persuaded that the statutory defenses can save the CDA from a conclusion of facial unconstitutionality.
First, it is difficult to characterize a criminal statute that hovers over each content provider, like the proverbial sword of
Damocles, as a narrow tailoring. Criminal prosecution, which carries with it the risk of public obloquy as well as the expense
of court preparation and attorneys' fees, could itself cause incalculable harm. No provider, whether an individual, non-profit
corporation, or even large publicly held corporation, is likely to willingly subject itself to prosecution for a miscalculation of
the prevalent community standards or for an error in judgment as to what is indecent. A successful defense to a criminal
prosecution would be small solace indeed.
Credit card and adult verification services are explicitly referred to as defenses in § 223(e)(5)(B) of the CDA. As is set forth
fully in the detailed Findings of Fact, these defenses are not technologically or economically feasible for most providers.
The Government then falls back on the affirmative defense to prosecution provided in § 223(e)(5)(A) for a person who "has
taken, in good faith, reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions under the circumstances to restrict or prevent access by
minors to a communication specified in such subsections . . . including any method which is feasible under available
technology." The Government emphasizes that "effective" does not require 100% restriction, and that this defense is
"open-ended" and requires only reasonable efforts based on current technology.
But, as the evidence made clear, there is no such technology at this time. * * *
[T]he viability of the defenses is intricately tied to the clarity of the CDA's scope. Because, like Judge Buckwalter, and for
many of the reasons he gives, I believe that "indecent" and "patently offensive" are inherently vague, particularly in light of
the government's inability to identify the relevant community by whose standards the material will be judged, I am not
persuaded by the Government that the statutory defenses in § 223(e) provide effective protection from the unconstitutional
reach of the statute.
Minors would not be left without any protection from exposure to patently unsuitable material on the Internet should the
challenged provisions of the CDA be preliminarily enjoined. Vigorous enforcement of current obscenity and child
pornography laws should suffice to address the problem the Government identified in court and which concerned Congress.
When the CDA was under consideration by Congress, the Justice Department itself communicated its view that it was not
necessary because it was prosecuting online obscenity, child pornography and child solicitation under existing laws, and
would continue to do so. It follows that the CDA is not narrowly tailored, and the Government's attempt to defend it on that
ground must fail.
G. Preliminary Injunction
* * *
The Government makes yet another argument that troubles me. It suggests that the concerns expressed by the plaintiffs and
the questions posed by the court reflect an exaggerated supposition of how it would apply the law, and that we should, in
effect, trust the Department of Justice to limit the CDA's application in a reasonable fashion that would avoid prosecution
for placing on the Internet works of serious literary or artistic merit. That would require a broad trust indeed from a
generation of judges not far removed from the attacks on James Joyce's Ulysses as obscene. Even if we were to place
confidence in the reasonable judgment of the representatives of the Department of Justice who appeared before us, the
Department is not a monolithic structure, and individual U.S. Attorneys in the various districts of the country have or appear
to exercise some independence, as reflected by the Department's tolerance of duplicative challenges in this very case.
But the bottom line is that the First Amendment should not be interpreted to require us to entrust the protection it affords to
the judgment of prosecutors. Prosecutors come and go. Even federal judges are limited to life tenure. The First Amendment
remains to give protection to future generations as well. I have no hesitancy in concluding that it is likely that plaintiffs will
prevail on the merits of their argument that the challenged provisions of the CDA are facially invalid under both the First and
BUCKWALTER, District Judge
I believe that plaintiffs should prevail in this litigation.
* * * Based upon our findings of fact derived from careful consideration of that evidence, I now conclude that this statute is
overbroad and does not meet the strict scrutiny standard in Sable.
More specifically, I now find that current technology is inadequate to provide a safe harbor to most speakers on the Internet.
On this issue, I concur in Chief Judge Sloviter's opinion. In addition, I continue to believe that the word "indecent" is
unconstitutionally vague, and I find that the terms "in context" and "patently offensive" also are so vague as to violate the
First and Fifth Amendments.
* * *
This statute, all parties agree, deals with protected speech, the preservation of which has been extolled by court after court in
case after case as the keystone, the bulwark, the very heart of our democracy. What is more, the CDA attempts to regulate
protected speech through criminal sanctions, thus implicating not only the First but also the Fifth Amendment of our
Constitution. The concept of due process is every bit as important to our form of government as is free speech. If free
speech is at the heart of our democracy, then surely due process is the very lifeblood of our body politic; for without it,
democracy could not survive. Distilled to its essence, due process is, of course, nothing more and nothing less than fair play.
If our citizens cannot rely on fair play in their relationship with their government, the stature of our government as a shining
example of democracy would be greatly diminished. I believe that an exacting or strict scrutiny of a statute which
attempts to criminalize protected speech requires a word-by-word look at that statute to be sure that it clearly sets forth as
precisely as possible what constitutes a violation of the statute.
The reason for such an examination is obvious. If the Government is going to intrude on the sacred ground of the First
Amendment and tell its citizens that their exercise of protected speech could land them in jail, the law imposing such a
penalty must clearly define the prohibited speech not only for the potential offender but also for the potential enforcer.
* * *
The fundamental constitutional principle that concerns me is one of simple fairness, and that is absent in the CDA. The
Government initially argues that "indecent" in this statute is the same as "patently offensive." I do not agree that a facial
reading of this statute supports that conclusion. The CDA does not define the term "indecent," and the FCC has not
promulgated regulations defining indecency in the medium of cyberspace. If "indecent" and "patently offensive" were
intended to have the same meaning, surely section (a) could have mirrored section (d)'s language. Indecent in this statute is
an undefined word which, standing alone, offers no guidelines whatsoever as to its parameters.
* * * Although the use of different terms in §§ 223(a) and (d) suggests that Congress intended that the terms have different
meanings, the Conference Report indicates an intention to treat § 223(a) as containing the same language as § 223(d). ("The
conferees intend that the term indecency ... has the same meaning as established in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation and
[Sable] and "New section 223(d)(1) codifies the definition of indecency from [Pacifica]. ... The precise contours of the
definition of indecency have varied. ... The essence of the phrase - patently offensive descriptions of sexual and excretory
activities - has remained constant, however.") Therefore, I will acknowledge that the term indecency is "reasonably
susceptible" to the definition offered in the Conference Report and might therefore adopt such a narrowing construction if it
would thereby preserve the constitutionality of the statute.
Accepting these terms as synonymous, however, provides no greater help to a speaker attempting to comply with the CDA.
Contrary to the Government's suggestion, Pacifica does not answer the question of whether the terms pass constitutional
muster in the present case. In Pacifica, the Court did not consider a vagueness challenge to the term "indecent," but
considered only whether the Government had the authority to regulate the particular broadcast at issue - George Carlin's
Monologue entitled "Filthy Words." In finding in the affirmative, the Court emphasized that its narrow holding applied only
to broadcasting, which is "uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read." Thus, while the Court sanctioned
the FCC's time restrictions on a radio program that repeatedly used vulgar language, the Supreme Court did not hold that
use of the term "indecent" in a statute applied to other media, particularly a criminal statute, would be on safe constitutional
The Supreme Court more recently had occasion to consider a statute banning "indecent" material in the dial-a-porn context
in Sable, and found that a complete ban on such programming violated the First Amendment because it was not narrowly
tailored to serve the purpose of limiting children's access to commercial pornographic telephone messages. Once again, the
Court did not consider a challenge to the term "indecent" on vagueness grounds, and indeed has never directly ruled on this
* * *
The Government attempts to save the "indecency" and "patently offensive" provisions by claiming that the provisions would
only be used to prosecute pornographic works which, when considered "in context" as the statute requires, would be
considered "indecent" or "patently offensive" in any community. The Government thus contends that plaintiffs' fears of
prosecution for publishing material about matters of health, art, literature or civil liberties are exaggerated and unjustified.
The Government's argument raises two issues: first is the question of which "community standards" apply in cyberspace,
under the CDA; and second is the proposition that citizens should simply rely upon prosecutors to apply the statute
Are the contemporary community standards to be applied those of the vast world of cyberspace, in accordance with the
Act's apparent intent to establish a uniform national standard of content regulation? The Government offered no evidence of
any such national standard or nationwide consensus as to what would be considered "patently offensive." On the contrary, in
supporting the use of the term "indecent" in the CDA, the Government suggests that, in part, this term was chosen as a
means of insulating children from material not restricted under current obscenity laws. This additional term is necessary, the
Government states, because "whether something rises to the level of obscene is a legal conclusion that, by definition, may
vary from community to community."
* * *
However, the Conference Report with regard to the CDA states that the Act is "intended to establish a uniform national
standard of content regulation." This conflict inevitably leaves the reader of the CDA unable to discern the relevant
"community standard," and will undoubtedly cause Internet users to "steer far wider of the unlawful zone" than if the
community standard to be applied were clearly defined. The chilling effect on the Internet users' exercise of free speech is
obvious. This is precisely the vice of vagueness.
In addition, the Government's argument that the challenged provisions will be applied only to "pornographic" materials, and
will not be applied to works with serious value is without support in the CDA itself. Unlike in the obscenity context,
indecency has not been defined to exclude works of serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value, and therefore the
Government's suggestion that it will not be used to prosecute publishers of such material is without foundation in the law
itself. The Government's claim that the work must be considered patently offensive "in context" does nothing to clarify the
provision, for it fails to explain which context is relevant. "Context" may refer to, among other things, the nature of the
communication as a whole, the time of day it was conveyed, the medium used, the identity of the speaker, or whether or
not it is accompanied by appropriate warnings.
* * *
The consequences of posting indecent content are severe. I recognize that people must make judgments each and every day,
many times in the most intimate of relationships, and that an error in judgment can have serious consequences. It is also true
that where those consequences involve penal sanctions, a criminal law or statute has more often than not carefully defined
the proscribed conduct. It is not so much that the accused needs these precise definitions, as it has been said he or she rarely
reads the law in advance. What is more important is that the enforcer of statutes must be guided by clear and precise
standards. In statutes that break into relatively new areas, such as this one, the need for definition of terms is greater, because
even commonly understood terms may have different connotations or parameters in this new context. Words cannot define
conduct with mathematical certainty, and lawyers, like the bright and intelligent ones now before us, will most certainly
continue to devise ways by which to challenge them. This rationale, however, can neither support a finding of
constitutionality nor relieve legislators from the very difficult task of carefully drafting legislation tailored to its goal and
sensitive to the unique characteristics of, in this instance, cyberspace.
DALZELL, District Judge
* * *
D. A Medium-Specific Analysis
The Internet is a new medium of mass communication. As such, the Supreme Court's First Amendment jurisprudence
compels us to consider the special qualities of this new medium in determining whether the CDA is a constitutional exercise
of governmental power. Relying on these special qualities, which we have described at length in our Findings of Fact above,
I conclude that the CDA is unconstitutional and that the First Amendment denies Congress the power to regulate protected
speech on the Internet. This analysis and conclusions are consistent with Congress's intent to avoid tortuous and piecemeal
review of the CDA by authorizing expedited, direct review in the Supreme Court "as a matter of right" of interlocutory, and
not merely final, orders upholding facial challenges to the Act.
1. The Differential Treatment of Mass Communication Media
Nearly fifty years ago, Justice Jackson recognized that "the moving picture screen, the radio, the newspaper, the handbill, the
sound truck and the street corner orator have differing natures, values, abuses and dangers. Each ... is a law unto itself."
The Supreme Court has expressed this sentiment time and again since that date, and differential treatment of the mass
media has become established First Amendment doctrine.
This medium-specific approach to mass communication examines the underlying technology of the communication to find
the proper fit between First Amendment values and competing interests. In print media, for example, the proper fit generally
forbids governmental regulation of content, however minimal. In other media (billboards, for example), the proper fit may
allow for some regulation of both content and of the underlying technology (such as it is) of the communication.
Radio and television broadcasting present the most expansive approach to medium- specific regulation of mass
communication. As a result of the scarcity of band widths on the electromagnetic spectrum, the Government holds broad
authority both to parcel out the frequencies and to prohibit others from speaking on the same frequency. * * * This scarcity
also allows the Government to regulate content even after it assigns a license... .
The broadcasting cases firmly establish that the Government may force a licensee to offer content to the public that the
licensee would otherwise not offer, thereby assuring that radio and television audiences have a diversity of content. In
broadcasting, "it is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas and
experiences which is crucial." These content restrictions include punishing licensees who broadcast inappropriate but
protected speech at an impermissible time.
In this case, the Government relies on the Pacifica decision in arguing that the CDA is a constitutional exercise of
governmental power. Since the CDA regulates indecent speech, and since Pacifica authorizes governmental regulation of
indecent speech (so the Government's argument goes), it must follow that the CDA is a valid exercise of governmental
power. That argument, however, ignores Pacifica's roots as a decision addressing the proper fit between broadcasting and
the First Amendment. The argument also assumes that what is good for broadcasting is good for the Internet.
* * *
3. The Effect of the CDA and the Novel Characteristics of Internet Communication
Over the course of five days of hearings and many hundreds of pages of declarations, deposition transcripts, and exhibits, we
have learned about the special attributes of Internet communication. Our Findings of Fact - many of them undisputed -
express our understanding of the Internet. These Findings lead to the conclusion that Congress may not regulate indecency
on the Internet at all.
Four related characteristics of Internet communication have a transcendent importance to our shared holding that the CDA is
unconstitutional on its face. We explain these characteristics in our Findings of Fact above, and I only rehearse them briefly
here. First, the Internet presents very low barriers to entry. Second, these barriers to entry are identical for both speakers and
listeners. Third, as a result of these low barriers, astoundingly diverse content is available on the Internet. Fourth, the
Internet provides significant access to all who wish to speak in the medium, and even creates a relative parity among
To understand how disruptive the CDA is to Internet communication, it must be remembered that the Internet evolved free
of content-based considerations. Before the CDA, it only mattered how, and how quickly, a particular packet of data
traveled from one point on the Internet to another. * * * Participation does not require, and has never required, approval of a
user's or network's content.
After the CDA, however, the content of a user's speech will determine the extent of participation in the new medium. If a
speaker's content is even arguably indecent in some communities, he must assess, inter alia, the risk of prosecution and the
cost of compliance with the CDA. Because the creation and posting of a Web site allows users anywhere in the country to
see that site, many speakers will no doubt censor their speech so that it is palatable in every community. Other speakers will
decline to enter the medium at all. Unlike other media, there is no technologically feasible way for an Internet speaker to
limit the geographical scope of his speech (even if he wanted to), or to "implement a system for screening the locale of
The CDA will, without doubt, undermine the substantive, speech-enhancing benefits that have flowed from the Internet.
Barriers to entry to those speakers affected by the Act would skyrocket, especially for non-commercial and not-for-profit
information providers. Such costs include those attributable to age or credit card verification (if possible), tagging (if tagging
is even a defense under the Act), and monitoring or review of one's content.
The diversity of the content will necessarily diminish as a result. The economic costs associated with compliance with the Act
will drive from the Internet speakers whose content falls within the zone of possible prosecution. Many Web sites,
newsgroups, and chat rooms will shut down, since users cannot discern the age of other participants. In this respect, the
Internet would ultimately come to mirror broadcasting and print, with messages tailored to a mainstream society from
speakers who could be sure that their message was likely decent in every community in the country.
The CDA will also skew the relative parity among speakers that currently exists on the Internet. Commercial entities who
can afford the costs of verification, or who would charge a user to enter their sites, or whose content has mass appeal, will
remain unaffected by the Act. Other users, such as Critical Path or Stop Prisoner Rape, or even the ACLU, whose Web sites
before the CDA were as equally accessible as the most popular Web sites, will be profoundly affected by the Act. This
change would result in an Internet that mirrors broadcasting and print, where economic power has become relatively
coterminous with influence.
Perversely, commercial pornographers would remain relatively unaffected by the Act, since we learned that most of them
already use credit card or adult verification anyway. Commercial pornographers normally provide a few free pictures to
entice a user into proceeding further into the Web site. To proceed beyond these teasers, users must provide a credit card
number or adult verification number. The CDA will force these businesses to remove the teasers (or cover the most salacious
content with cgi scripts), but the core, commercial product of these businesses will remain in place.
The CDA's wholesale disruption on the Internet will necessarily affect adult participation in the medium. As some speakers
leave or refuse to enter the medium, and others bowdlerize their speech or erect the barriers that the Act envisions, and still
others remove bulletin boards, Web sites, and newsgroups, adults will face a shrinking ability to participate in the medium.
Since much of the communication on the Internet is participatory, i.e., is a form of dialogue, a decrease in the number of
speakers, speech fora, and permissible topics will diminish the worldwide dialogue that is the strength and signal achievement
of the medium.
* * *
4. Diversity and Access on the Internet
* * *
It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace
of mass speech that this country - and indeed the world - has yet seen. The plaintiffs in these actions correctly describe the
"democratizing" effects of Internet communication: individual citizens of limited means can speak to a worldwide audience
on issues of concern to them. Federalists and Anti-Federalists may debate the structure of their government nightly, but these
debates occur in newsgroups or chat rooms rather than in pamphlets. Modern-day Luthers still post their theses, but to
electronic bulletin boards rather than the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche. More mundane (but from a constitutional
perspective, equally important) dialogue occurs between aspiring artists, or French cooks, or dog lovers, or fly fishermen.
Indeed, the Government's asserted "failure" of the Internet rests on the implicit premise that too much speech occurs in that
medium, and that speech there is too available to the participants. This is exactly the benefit of Internet communication,
however. The Government, therefore, implicitly asks this court to limit both the amount of speech on the Internet and the
availability of that speech. This argument is profoundly repugnant to First Amendment principles.
My examination of the special characteristics of Internet communication, and review of the Supreme Court's medium-specific
First Amendment jurisprudence, lead me to conclude that the Internet deserves the broadest possible protection from
government-imposed, content-based regulation. If "the First Amendment erects a virtually insurmountable barrier between
government and the print media," even though the print medium fails to achieve the hoped-for diversity in the marketplace of
ideas, then that "insurmountable barrier" must also exist for a medium that succeeds in achieving that diversity. If our
Constitution "prefers 'the power of reason as applied through public discussion,'" "regardless of how beneficent-sounding
the purposes of controlling the press might be," even though "occasionally debate on vital matters will not be comprehensive
and ... all viewpoints may not be expressed," a medium that does capture comprehensive debate and does allow for the
expression of all viewpoints should receive at least the same protection from intrusion.
Finally, if the goal of our First Amendment jurisprudence is the "individual dignity and choice" that arises from "putting the
decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us," then we should be especially vigilant in
preventing content-based regulation of a medium that every minute allows individual citizens actually to make those
decisions. Any content-based regulation of the Internet, no matter how benign the purpose, could burn the global village to
roast the pig.
5. Protection of Children from Pornography
I accept without reservation that the Government has a compelling interest in protecting children from pornography. * * *
This rationale, however, is as dangerous as it is compelling. Laws regulating speech for the protection of children have no
limiting principle, and a well-intentioned law restricting protected speech on the basis of its content is, nevertheless,
state-sponsored censorship. Regulations that "drive certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace" for children's benefit
risk destroying the very "political system and cultural life" that they will inherit when they come of age.
I therefore have no doubt that a Newspaper Decency Act, passed because Congress discovered that young girls had read a
front page article in the New York Times on female genital mutilation in Africa, would be unconstitutional. Nor would a
Novel Decency Act, adopted after legislators had seen too many pot-boilers in convenience store book racks, pass
constitutional muster. There is no question that a Village Green Decency Act, the fruit of a Senator's overhearing of a ribald
conversation between two adolescent boys on a park bench, would be unconstitutional. A Postal Decency Act, passed
because of constituent complaints about unsolicited lingerie catalogues, would also be unconstitutional. In these forms of
communication, regulations on the basis of decency simply would not survive First Amendment scrutiny.
The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green, or the mails. Because it would necessarily
affect the Internet itself, the CDA would necessarily reduce the speech available for adults on the medium. This is a
constitutionally intolerable result.
Some of the dialogue on the Internet surely tests the limits of conventional discourse. Speech on the Internet can be
unfiltered, unpolished, and unconventional, even emotionally charged, sexually explicit, and vulgar - in a word, "indecent" in
many communities. But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a
voice. We should also protect the autonomy that such a medium confers to ordinary people as well as media magnates.
Moreover, the CDA will almost certainly fail to accomplish the Government's interest in shielding children from
pornography on the Internet. Nearly half of Internet communications originate outside the United States, and some
percentage of that figure represents pornography. Pornography from, say, Amsterdam will be no less appealing to a child on
the Internet than pornography from New York City, and residents of Amsterdam have little incentive to comply with the
My analysis does not deprive the Government of all means of protecting children from the dangers of Internet
communication. The Government can continue to protect children from pornography on the Internet through vigorous
enforcement of existing laws criminalizing obscenity and child pornography. As we learned at the hearing, there is also a
compelling need for public education about the benefits and dangers of this new medium, and the Government can fill that
role as well. In my view, our action today should only mean that the Government's permissible supervision of Internet
content stops at the traditional line of unprotected speech.
Parents, too, have options available to them. As we learned at the hearing, parents can install blocking software on their
home computers, or they can subscribe to commercial online services that provide parental controls. It is quite clear that
powerful market forces are at work to expand parental options to deal with these legitimate concerns. More fundamentally,
parents can supervise their children's use of the Internet or deny their children the opportunity to participate in the
medium until they reach an appropriate age.
Cutting through the acronyms and argot that littered the hearing testimony, the Internet may fairly be regarded as a
never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most
participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion.
True it is that many find some of the speech on the Internet to be offensive, and amid the din of cyberspace many hear
discordant voices that they regard as indecent. The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has
unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, but as one of plaintiffs' experts put it with such resonance at the hearing: "What
achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos."
Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the
unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.
For these reasons, I without hesitation hold that the CDA is unconstitutional on its face.
Notes to Reading 1
1. Where do Judges Sloviter, Buckwalter and Dalzell place Internet communications in the "battle of analogies"? Does it
more closely resemble print media? Or telephony? Cable? Broadcasting? Are these three judges in accord on that question?
Where does the government stand on that issue? Which analogy most appeals to you, or is the Internet truly sui generis?
2. What standard does Judge Sloviter's opinion impose on the government to justify the CDA? How do Buckwalter and
Dalzell differ, if at all? Which opinion do you find more compelling?
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