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RENO VS AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION

FACTS:
The United States Congress made its first notable attempt to regulate pornographic material on
the internet through The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA).
This is the landmark cyberlaw case whereby the United States Supreme Court struck the antiindecency provisions of the Act.
The Act affected the Internet in two significant ways:
1. It attempted to regulate both indecency and obscenity in cyberspace (when available to
children).
2. Operators of Internet services are not to be construed as publishers (thus they are not
liable for words of third parties who use their services)
The relevant sections of the Act were introduced in response to fears that Internet pornography
was on the rise, and it marked the first attempt to expand regulations to this new form of media.
Passed by Congress on February 1, 1996, and signed by President Bill Clinton on February 8,
1996, the CDA imposed criminal sanctions on anyone who knowingly
(A) Uses an interactive computer service to send to a specific person or persons under 18 years
of age, or (B) uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person
under 18 years of age, 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.
It further criminalized the transmission of materials that were obscene or indecent to persons
known to be under 18.
The governments main defense of the CDA was that similar decency laws had been upheld in
three prior Supreme Court decisions and that the CDA should be similarly upheld :
1.

Ginsberg v. New York (1968) the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a New
York statute that prohibited selling to minors under 17 years of age material that was
considered obscene as to them even if not obscene as to adult
2. F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation (1978 the Supreme Court had upheld the possibility of
the FCC delivering administrative sanctions to a radio station for broadcasting George
Carlins monologue titled Filthy Words
3. Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc. (1986) the Supreme Court had upheld a zoning
ordinance that kept adult movie theaters out of residential neighborhoods
The government argued that the CDA was an attempt to institute a sort of cyberzoning on the
Internet.

ISSUES:
Whether the statutory provisions enacted to protect minors from indecent and patently
offensive communications on the internet abridges the freedom of speech clause of the US
Constitution.
Whether the CDA promotes compelling interests and least restrictive means to further
governmental interest to curb down the publication of pornographic, indecent and obscene
materials via Internet.
HELD:
The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the two provisions of the Communications
Decency Act (CDA) that prohibited indecent communications to minors on the Internet. It may
be found constitutional only if it serves to promote a compelling interest and is the least
restrictive means to further the articulated interest.
Considering whether the CDA is the least restrictive means to further the governmental interest,
the Court found that the Government failed to explain why a less restrictive provision would not
be as effective as the CDA.
The Court held that:
The CDAs burden on adult speech is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at
least as effective in achieving the legitimate purpose that the statute was enacted to serveThe
governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials does not justify an
unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.
The Court held that despite the intent to protect minors from inappropriate materials, the statute
abridged the freedom of speech
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his conclusion:
We are persuaded that the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a
statute regulates the content of speech. In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful
speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a
constitutional right to receive and to address to one another. That burden on adult speech is
unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving the
legitimate purpose that the statute was enacted to serve.