The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), 47 U.S.C.S. § 223, lacks the precision that U.S. Const. amend. I requires when a statute regulates the content of speech. In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another. That burden on adult speech is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving the legitimate purpose of the statute.
Two provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) sought to protect minors from harmful material on the Internet, an international network of interconnected computers that enables millions of people to communicate with one another in "cyberspace" and to access vast amounts of information from around the world. The CDA criminalized the "knowing" transmission of "obscene or indecent" messages to any recipient under 18 years of age. Section 223(d) of the CDA prohibited the "knowing" sending or displaying to a person under 18 of any message "that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs." Affirmative defenses are provided for those who take good faith, effective actions to restrict access by minors to the prohibited communications, § 223(e)(5)(A), and those who restrict such access by requiring certain designated forms of age proof, such as a verified credit card or an adult identification number, § 223(e)(5)(B). A number of plaintiffs filed suit sought an injunction challenging the constitutionality of §§ 223(a)(1) and 223(d). After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court, ruling that 223(a) and 223(d) were unconstitutional and granted the plaintiffs' motions for preliminary injunction against enforcement of 223(a) and 223(d). On appeal, the Government asserted that the District Court erred in holding that the CDA violated the First Amendment because it is overbroad, and the Fifth Amendment because it is vague.
Did CDA violate the U.S. Constitution?
The Court held that 223(a) and 223(d) abridged the freedom of speech protected by the Federal Constitution's First Amendment. According to the Court, 223(a) and 223(d) were content-based blanket restrictions on speech which could not properly be analyzed as regulations of the time, place, and manner of speech. Furthermore, the Court ruled that there was no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to the Internet, and that the many ambiguities concerning the scope of 223(a) and 223(d) rendered the provisions problematic for First Amendment purposes. The Court also posited that the unprecedented breadth of the coverage of 223(a) and 223(d) imposed an especially heavy burden on the Federal Government to explain why a less restrictive provision would not be as effective. Moreover, the Court determined that 223(a) and 223(d) were not narrowly tailored to the goal of protecting minors from potentially harmful materials.