In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act ("CDA") in an effort to regulate indecent speech on the Internet. Through the CDA, Congress sought to protect children from easily accessible, harmful materials on the Internet. In spirit, the law had noble intentions; however, on its face, the CDA raised serious constitutional questions and was immediately challenged by First Amendment advocates in ACLU v. Reno ("Reno I"). Using broad and vague terms such as "indecent" and "patently offensive," the CDA threatened to restrict adult access to a tremendous amount of speech that was constitutionally protected. Additionally, through the imposition of criminal sanctions, the CDA could have had a "chilling effect" on speech. The CDA was reviewed and rejected by a federal district court and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court. In their analyses, both courts pointed to the vague language and criminal penalties found in the CDA as primary reasons for invalidating the statute. Further, the courts were keenly aware of the Internet's free and open nature, its diversity of content, and its status as a powerful new medium for mass communications. The Supreme Court, in affirming the district court, did not want to endanger the free flow of information on the Internet.
Dharmesh S. Vashee,
ACLU v. Reno: Congress Places Speed Bumps on the Information Superhighway,
Rich. J.L. & Tech
Available at: http://scholarship.richmond.edu/jolt/vol6/iss3/6