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The Communications Decency Act of 1996

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) was enacted as a means to prevent the transmission of indecent and patently offensive materials to minors over the Internet. There were two key provisions to the CDA:

  1. The first prohibited companies or individuals from knowingly transmitting obscene or indecent messages to anyone under 18.
  2. The second prohibited companies or individuals from knowingly sending or displaying patently offensive communications.

The CDA imposed broadcast-style content regulations on the Internet; many felt that this severely restricted the First Amendment rights of U.S. Internet users. Some claimed that the Act threatened the very existence of the Internet itself. A major problem for the CDA, despite its good intentions, was its impracticability. How can such a law be effective at controlling content on a global communications medium when a website in the Netherlands is as accessible as a site in Tulsa?

Soon after the CDA was enacted, the activist group, Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), was assembled to challenge the CDA. CIEC is a broad coalition of the following groups: book associations, libraries, civil liberties groups, magazines newspapers, online service providers, over 56,000 individual Internet users, and recording industry associations. In terms of composition, CIEC is a fairly good representation of the breadth of the Internet community. CIEC asserted that the Internet is a unique communications medium deserving broad First Amendment protections. Basically, CIEC argued that the inability of Internet users and providers to reliably verify the age of information recipients prevented them from engaging in indecent speech, which traditionally has received strong protection under the First Amendment.

It is important to keep in mind that the CDA was not intended to outlaw child pornography, obscenity, or stalking children. These acts were made crimes many years earlier under other laws. Rather, the CDA prohibited users from posting indecent or obviously offensive materials in public forums on the Internet. These included chat rooms, newsgroups, online discussion lists, or web pages. Under the CDA, books such as the Catcher in the Rye, Ulysses, Fanny Hill, and many other texts, although offensive to some people, have the full protection of the First Amendment if they are published in a newspaper, magazine, or a book, or posted in the public square.

After a lengthy hearing that included many examples and on-line demonstrations, a special three-judge district court (which was created by the CDA in anticipation of constitutional challenges) agreed with the groups and ruled that the provisions violated the First Amendment. This decision went to the Supreme Court on appeal.

Inside The Communications Decency Act of 1996