Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union

521 U.S. 844 (1997), aff’g 929 F. Supp. 824 (E.D. Pa. 1996)

Previous case names:
American Library Association v. Department of Justice (lawsuit was consolidated with Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union)

On June 26, 1997, the United States Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, struck down two provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that respectively sought to criminalize the “knowing” transmission of both “obscene or indecent” and “patently offensive” messages to minors. Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens held that the Act violated the First Amendment because the challenged provisions were content-based blanket restrictions on constitutionally protected speech.


The Communications Decency Act
On February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act [3] into law. Through the CDA, the government tried to regulate minors’ access to pornographic material on the Internet. The Act prohibited the knowing electronic transmission of “communication which is obscene or indecent” to a minor, as well as the electronic distribution or display to a minor of any material that “depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.”

The same day that CDA was signed, American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed a legal challenge to the law in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter ordered the government to refrain from prosecuting under the challenged provisions until the court rendered a decision on the motion for a temporary restraining order.

On February 15, 1996, Judge Buckwalter granted ACLU’s motion for a temporary restraining order against the “obscene or indecent” provision but denied the motion for a temporary restraining order against the “patently offensive” provision.

Media Coalition members file a challenge
On February 26, 1996, the American Library Association, joined by several Media Coalition members — American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Freedom to Read Foundation, Interactive Digital Software Association (now the Entertainment Software Association) and Magazine Publishers of America (now the Association of Magazine Media) — and other plaintiffs, filed a complaint against the United States Department of Justice seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of the Act.

The next day, this suit — American Library Association v. Department of Justice — was consolidated with Reno v. ACLU.

On March 1, 1996, the joint plaintiffs filed a memorandum of law in support of their motion for preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the CDA. Several weeks later, defendants filed their response in opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction.

District Court ruling
On March 21, 1996, a three-judge panel, consisting of Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, Judge Stewart Dalzell, and Judge Buckwalter, began its hearing for preliminary injunction.

Plaintiffs argued that the CDA effectively bans a substantial amount of speech that is constitutionally protected for adults and that they were not challenging the CDA as it applies to obscenity and child pornography. Defendants’ primary argument was that the CDA contained similar-enough language to other anti-indecency statutes that survived constitutional challenges.

On June 11, 1996, the District Court panel [2] granted plaintiffs motion for preliminary injunction against the CDA, stating that the Act would unconstitutionally restrict speech on the Internet.

On September 29, 1996, the government filed a direct appeal to the Supreme Court as provided in the statute.

Appeal in the Supreme Court
Both the ACLU appellees and ALA appellees filed their briefs with the Supreme Court on February 20, 1997. The government filed its reply brief on March 7, 1997. Oral arguments were held on March 19, 1997.

On June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court found [1] that the CDA’s “indecent transmission” and “patently offensive display” provisions are unconstitutional. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, which Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined.

The Court held that an examination of the three cases upon which the defendants based their argument — Ginsberg v. New YorkFCC v. Pacifica Foundation and Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc. — “raises—rather than relieves—doubts concerning the constitutionality of the CDA.” The Court found that the statutes in these cases were much narrower in scope than the CDA.

Furthermore, the Court found that the CDA “effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that have adults have a constitutional right” to access. It held that there are less restrictive alternatives to protect minors from accessing “potentially harmful speech” than the CDA.

Justice Stevens concluded with the acknowledgement of the Internet’s role as a “new marketplace of ideas,” and he wrote, “The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”

Amending the Communications Decency Act
After the Supreme Court ruling, the United States Congress passed a law amending the provisions of the CDA that were struck down as unconstitutional. See Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union for more information on the subsequent litigation.


American Library Association lawsuit
American Library Association, American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Freedom to Read Foundation, Interactive Digital Software Association (now the Entertainment Software Association), Magazine Publishers of America (now the Association of Magazine Media), America Online, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Apple Computer, Association of Publishers, Editors and Writers, Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, Commercial Internet Exchange Association, CompuServe Incorporated, Families Against Internet Censorship, Health Sciences Libraries Consortium, Hotwired Ventures, Interactive Services Association, Microsoft Corporation, The Microsoft Network, National Press Photographers Association, Netcom On-Line Communication Services, Newspaper Association of America, Opnet, Prodigy Services Company, Society of Professional Journalists and Wired Ventures

American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit
American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Journalism Education Association, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, National Writers Union, Clarinet Communications Corporation, Institute for Global Communications, Stop Prisoner Rape, AIDS Education Global Information System, Bibliobytes, Queer Resources Directory, Critical Path AIDS Project, Wildcat Press, Justice on Campus, Cyberwire Dispatch, The Safer Sex Page, The Ethical Spectacle and Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Amicus Briefs filed in the Supreme Court:

On behalf of the appellees, American Civil Liberties Union, et al.
American Association of University Professors et al., Apollomedia Corporation et al., Association of National Advertisers, Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Feminists for Free Expression, National Association of Broadcasters et al., Playboy Enterprises, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press et al., Site Specific et al., Speech Communication Association (now the National Communication Association), Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

On behalf of the appellants, the Attorney General of the United States
U.S. Rep. Dan Coats et al., Enough is Enough et al., the Family Life Project of the American Center for Law and Justice, Morality in Media and James Clancy