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High Court Hears Internet Porn Case - 2001-11-28

Internet web site operators and free speech advocates told the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday that the government has gone too far with a law seeking to keep online pornography away from children. The case, which could affect thousands of internet sites, involves a 1998 law that makes it a crime to put pornography within the unrestricted reach of minors. But opponents say the law would unconstitutionally limit speech on the web.

Backers of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) say the law is necessary to shield children from pornography that is widely available on the World Wide Web.

Under the law, which is on hold pending the court challenge, web site operators are required to set up filters that will block children from viewing material deemed "harmful to minors." Web site operators could face jail time if they fail to set up filters, which verify that viewers are old enough.

Opponents say the standards set by COPA are too broad and web sites not traditionally classified as pornography would also be affected.

Ann Beeson, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued before the Court. She says the law would have a negative impact on the principle of free speech by causing people to censor themselves.

"It would require web speakers that have a right to communicate material that is protected for adults to put up screens that would deter their users and to do that under threat of criminal penalty," said the lawyer. "[Web operators] are going to say I'm not going to go to jail. I'm going to self-censor my site and not even put up anything that could come remotely close to what is harmful to minors," she said.

The court has already overturned a similar law as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. But the Bush administration and other backers say the latest version, settled on by Congress in 1998, is more focused, placing only a modest burden on adult access to pornographic material.

COPA backer Donna Rice Hughes says children regularly stumble across material on the internet that is harmful to minors. She says the law's use of adult filtering software marks the best way to keep that material out of kids' reach. "I think the question to the court to the ACLU is, if you think there is a less restrictive means that Congress could implement, what would it be?" asked Ms. Hughes.

But the justices Wednesday focused mainly on the question of how to determine what material is harmful to minors.

The law cites so-called "contemporary community standards." But a lower court ruled such standards were probably unconstitutional because they could allow the most conservative communities in America to dictate the censorship of internet material available across the country.

The Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling in the case next year.