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U.S. Court Calls COPA Unconstitutional, Again

A U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ban on the Child Online Protection Act, saying it's too vague, overly broad, and unnecessary.
A federal court on Tuesday upheld a ban on the Child Online Protection Act, saying it's too vague, overly broad, and unnecessary.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the federal law on behalf of writers, artists, and health educators, saying it threatened constitutionally protected speech. "For years the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the Internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional," ACLU senior staff attorney Chris Hansen said in an announcement. "The government has no more right to censor the Internet than it does books and magazines."

A federal district court and a federal appeals court ruled that the law violated the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the decision and returned the case to the district court to determine whether technology impacted the law's constitutionality. For example, the court had to decide whether commercially available software could still block content deemed "harmful to minors."

Last year, a district judge ruled that the law was still unconstitutional because it limited free speech and technology was available to block the harmful content. The government appealed the decision again. Now, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has also upheld the ban on COPA. The decision echoed earlier rulings by pointing out that there are less restrictive, equally effective ways to protect children online and by declaring the law vague and too broad. The law would have imposed penalties up to $50,000 a day and up to six months in prison for content deemed "harmful to minors."

"Our clients provide valuable and necessary health and news information. Preventing adults from accessing this information under the guise of protecting children is not permissible," said Aden Fine, senior staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. "There are more effective, less intrusive tools available to limit what minors can access on the Internet."