In a landmark 1997 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Internet is entitled to the highest free speech protections under the First Amendment of the US Constitution—the same level of protection afforded print media. The Court’s decision in Reno v. ACLU extended this protection to the Internet because of its low barriers to access, abundance of speakers, lack of gatekeepers, and high degree of individual control.
The ruling struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA), Congress’s first attempt to censor speech online. Passed in February 1996, the CDA imposed broadcast-style content regulations on the open, decentralized Internet and severely restricted the First Amendment rights of all Americans. CDT strongly opposed this legislation because it threatened the very existence of the Internet as a means for free expression, education, and political discourse. Although well intentioned, the CDA was ineffective and failed to recognize the unique nature of this global medium.
The CDA prohibited posting “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials in a public forum on the Internet. This broad scope would have included classic fiction such as The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysees, George Carlin’s famous “7 dirty words,” and countless other materials which, although offensive to some, enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment if published in a newspaper, magazine, or a book, or in the public square. The CDA was not about child pornography, obscenity, or using the Internet to stalk children. These were already and remain illegal under current law.
The Court held that the capacity of the Internet to empower users to speak and individually control what information they received made broadcast-style regulation of content inappropriate in the online context. Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens held that “the CDA places an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech” and found that all provisions of the CDA were unconstitutional as they applied to “indecent” or “patently offensive” speech. The decision upheld a lower court decision that had famously stated “that the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” The seminal decision is the foundation of online free expression and has had a profound impact on the growth of the Internet as a platform for discourse and commerce.