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Communications Decency Act

Communications Decency Act: On March 19, 1997, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the challenge to the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Observers to the oral arguments found that while the Justices seemed relatively conversant on Internet technology, the ultimate position of the court was too close to call. The CDA was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton on February 8, 1996. The Act prohibits the transmission of any indecent comment, image, or communication to a minor. In addition, the CDA also prohibits anyone from placing on the Internet in such a manner that is it is available to persons under age 18 any comments, images, or other communication that depicts or describes, "in terms patently offensive as measure by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

The publication and distribution of "obscene" images and materials has always been prohibited, whether on the Internet or in the press. This Act goes beyond the prohibiting obscene materials, and instead focuses on controlling the distribution of "indecent" materials, which is a much broader and more ambiguous term. In effect, the Act treats the Internet as a broadcast medium, such as television, where courts have allowed controls over indecent materials. Opponents of the CDA argue that the Internet should be given broad first amendment protection, much like the printed page. If such broad first amendment protections are given to the Internet, CDA opponents argue, the law would violate the first amendment.

The ACLU and other parties challenged the CDA in court as soon as it was signed into law. A U.S. District Court in Philadelphia ruled last year that the CDA violated the first amendment guarantee of free speech. The court held that the Internet is a "never-ending worldwide conversation" deserving of the "highest protection from government interference." Under a special provision placed into the CDA by Congress, the appeal from this decision must be heard and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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