Reno v. ACLU

Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997)

Review of judgment striking down provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA)

The CDA contained provisions designed to protect minors from “indecent” and “patently offensive” communications on the internet
The “incident transmission” provision prohibited the knowing transmission of obscene or indecent messages to any recipient under eighteen years of age
The “patently offensive display” provision prohibited the knowing sending or displaying of patently offensive messages to a person under eighteen years of age
The ACLU filed an action alleging that the CDA abridged freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment
The district court found in its favor and enjoined the enforcement of the “indecent” communications provisions, but expressly preserved the government’s right to investigate and prosecute the obscenity or child pornography activities prohibited by the provision
The court also issued an unqualified injunction against the enforcement of the “patently offensive displays” provision because it contained no separate reference to obscenity or child pornography

Content-based government regulations on speech are unconstitutional unless the government can demonstrate that it has a compelling interest for the regulation and that the regulation is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest

Although the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials is a legitimate and important one, the CDA provisions at issue here are so broad and imprecise that they cannot be upheld. The definition within the CDA is imprecise and would certainly lead to a chilling effect on speech and expression over the internet. Persons communicating over the internet using even innocuous terms would hesitate to do so rather than risk criminal penalties imposed by a vague statute. It unquestionably deserves the highest level of First Amendment protection. The breadth of the CDA’s coverage is wholly unprecedented and would undoubtedly impact adult as well as minor access to such materials. It does not limit its restrictions to commercial speech or entities, but encompasses anyone posting messages on a computer, regardless of time of day, website, or any other factor. The current provisions cannot stand as they are more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it

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