Reno v. ACLU: U.S. Supreme Court Finds Disputed Provisions of Communications Decency Act Unconstitutional

On June 26, 1997, in the first Internet-related U.S. Supreme Court case ever to be decided, seven justices found the disputed provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, and was joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Scalia, Souter, and Thomas. Justice O’Connor filed a separate opinion, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, concurring in the decision but dissenting in part.

Decision Highlights:

The opinion was a ringing endorsement of the Internet as a “dramatic” and “unique” “marketplace of ideas.”

The Court determined that the World Wide Web is analogous to a library or a shopping mall, rejecting the government’s argument that it could be viewed as more akin to a broadcast medium.

The justices found that although sexually explicit material was “widely available” online, “users seldom encounter such content accidentally.”

In its First Amendment analysis, the Court explained that “the many ambiguities concerning the scope of [the CDA’s] coverage render it problematic for purposes of the First Amendment,” and declared that the Act “unquestionably silences some speakers whose messages would be entitled to constitutional protection.”

The Court found that the lower court in this case “was correct to conclude that the CDA effectively resembles the ban on ‘dial-a-porn'” invalidated in an earlier decision — Sable Communications of Cal., Inc. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989).

Examining the issue of whether the rights of adults should be compromised in order to protect children, the justices declared that “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…[w]hile we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials,…that interest does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.”