Reno v. ACLU

LOCATION:Attorney General Office

DOCKET NO.: 96-511
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)

CITATION: 521 US 844 (1997)
ARGUED: Mar 19, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1997

Bruce J. Ennis – for appellees
Bruce J. Ennis, Jr. – Argued the cause for the appellees
Seth P. Waxman – Argued the cause for the appellants

Facts of the case

Several litigants challenged the constitutionality of two provisions in the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Intended to protect minors from unsuitable internet material, the Act criminalized the intentional transmission of “obscene or indecent” messages as well as the transmission of information which depicts or describes “sexual or excretory activities or organs” in a manner deemed “offensive” by community standards. After being enjoined by a District Court from enforcing the above provisions, except for the one concerning obscenity and its inherent protection against child pornography, Attorney General Janet Reno appealed directly to the Supreme Court as provided for by the Act’s special review provisions.


Did certain provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act violate the First and Fifth Amendments by being overly broad and vague in their definitions of the types of internet communications which they criminalized?

Media for Reno v. ACLU

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 19, 1997 in Reno v. ACLU

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 26, 1997 in Reno v. ACLU

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 96-511, Reno versus American Civil Liberty Union will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

This case comes to us by way of appeal from a three-judge District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania which held a federal statute unconstitutional.

The statute is the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which reported to preclude indecent and sexually offensive material off of the internet to the extent that they would be available to minors.

While we do not question in the slightest the legitimacy and importance of the interest in protecting minors from harmful materials of this kind, after a rather elaborate study of this extensive piece of legislation, we have concluded that both of the challenged provisions are unconstitutional.

We explain our reasoning in an opinion that occupies some 40 pages and I will not try to summarize it.

I will merely point out that one of the contentions that the government advanced at the start of the litigation, they suggested that the legislation was necessary in order to preserve the growth the internet because so many people might hesitate to use it running the risk of encountering this kind of material.

Now we find that argument particularly unpersuasive because the phenomenal growth of the internet seems to indicate that government regulation is not necessary in order to foster rapid growth of a new communications medium such as this in theoretical experience with this particular medium indicates that perhaps a lack of regulation may have done more to foster growth of the medium than the regulation itself might have.

As with respect to a good part of our holding, we are unanimous on the judgment although Justice O’Connor has filed an opinion joined by the Chief Justice which concurs in the judgment in part but dissents with respect to one aspect of the statute.