Federal Judge Overturns Net Porn Law

WASHINGTON (08/10/2000) - A federal judge has ruled that a Virginia law aimed at blocking children's online access to adult material violates First Amendment free-speech protections and the constitutional interstate commerce clause. The opinion by U.S. District Judge James H. Michael Jr. marks the latest in a string of defeats for activists trying to apply historical standards for adult material to the Internet.

Last year Virginia's legislature rewrote a 30-year-old law prohibiting the sale or display of depictions of nudity, sexual acts and "sadomasochistic abuse" to include electronic files or messages containing images or words. The law provides for penalties including a fine of up to US$2,500 and a year in jail, but no one has been prosecuted under the new language since it took effect in July 1999.

A group of Internet businesses and others, including PSINet Inc. and People for the American Way, filed suit last year in an Alexandria, Va., federal court.

But U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton threw the case out on a technicality last November without ruling on its merits. The plaintiffs then refiled in federal court in Charlottesville, Va. They argued that parental monitoring and the voluntary use of filtering software were better tools than broadly written legislation when it comes to protecting minors from X-rated material.

In his opinion, Michael said the added language - aimed squarely at the Internet - was unenforceable.

"The 1999 Act provides no way for Internet speakers to prevent their communications from reaching minors without also denying adults access to the material," Michael wrote. "The Act is also overbroad because it infringes on the rights of adults in communities outside of Virginia."

Civil-liberties advocates hailed Michael's decision as further judicial affirmation that such decency laws cannot be reconciled with the global medium of the Internet.

"This is the latest in an unbroken string of decisions that say you can't reduce everybody on the Internet to [content] that's suitable for children," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way.

This week's decision follows earlier federal court decisions striking down the federal Communications Decency Act and the subsequent Child Online Protection Act, as well as state laws in New York, Michigan and New Mexico. Mincberg said a similar law on the books in Arizona could be challenged soon.

"We are disappointed in the decision, but this case is still in its infancy," said David Botkins, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office.

Botkins said his office was reviewing the opinion and hasn't decided whether to appeal. He was quick to add, however, that Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley generally favors light regulation of the Internet.

The Fairfax, Va.-based National Law Center for Children and Families, which supported the law, hasn't returned a telephone call seeking comment.

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