Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union

PETITIONER: Ashcroft
RESPONDENT: American Civil Liberties Union
LOCATION: ACLU Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 00-1293
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 535 US 564 (2002)
ARGUED: Nov 28, 2001
DECIDED: May 13, 2002

ADVOCATES:
Ann E. Beeson - Argued the cause for the respondents
Theodore B. Olson - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Unlike the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) applies only to material displayed on the World Wide Web, covers only communications made for commercial purposes, and restricts only "material that is harmful to minors." Moreover, COPA requires jurors to apply "contemporary community standards" in assessing material. Before it was scheduled to go into effect, a number of organizations affected by COPA filed suit, alleging that the statute violated adults' First Amendment rights because it effectively banned constitutionally protected speech, was not the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling governmental purpose, and was substantially overbroad. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction. In affirming, the Court of Appeals, reasoning that COPA's use of contemporary community standards to identify material that is harmful to minors rendered the statute substantially overbroad.

Question

Does the Child Online Protection Act's use of "community standards" to identify "material that is harmful to minors" violate the First Amendment?

Media for Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 2001 in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 13, 2002 in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the court to announce in two cases.

The first is Ashcroft versus American Civil Liberties Union, No. 00-1293.

The case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act in an attempt the restrict minors access to pornographic material on the internet.

The Act prohibits any person from knowingly and with knowledge of the character of the material in interstate of foreign commerce by means of a World Wide Web making any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors.

In defining material that is harmful to minors, the Act draws down the three-part test for obscenity set forth in our decision in Miller versus California some 30 years ago, and that requires jurys to apply contemporary community standards in assessing the material.

The respondents who post or have members that post sexually oriented material on the web brought a facial challenge before the Act went into effect claiming that it violated the First Amendment.

The District Court issued a preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing the Act because it thought the statute was unlikely to survive strict scrutiny.

The Court of Appeals affirmed but based its decision on the ground not relied on by the District Court.

The Court of Appeals observed that because web publishers currently do not have any means of limiting access to their sites based on the geographic location of internet users, the Act would effectively force all speakers on the web to abide by the most puritan community standard.

As a result, the Court of Appeals concluded that COPA which is the acronym for this law use of contemporary community standards to identify material that is harmful to minors rendered the statutes substantially over broad.

In an opinion authored by Justice Thomas and filed with the Clerk today, we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceeding.

We hold that COPA’s reliance on community standards to identify material that is harmful to minors does not render the statute facially unconstitutional.

Justice O’Connor has filed a opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment; Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment; Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment and which Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg has joined, and Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.