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March 21, 1996

US JUDGE BLOCKS COMMUNICATIONS DECENCY ACT, DEMANDS CLARIFICATION

By CBR Staff Writer

No sooner had President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act than a federal judge blocked it, calling for a distinction to be made between ‘indecent’ materials and ‘obscene’ ones. The new legislation, prohibiting distribution of indecent material to minors over computer networks, was introduced as part of the telecommunications reform bill. It makes sending indecent material over a network accessible to minors punishable by a $250,000 fine and two years in prison. An assembly of 20 libertarian groups successfully filed to block the law as unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment on freedom of speech, contending that the legislation was technically impossible to meet and would unfairly hamper free expression over the Internet by penalizing a potentially wide range of sexual- related information. US District Court Judge Ronald Buckwalter said his ruling only sought to prevent penalties against indecent materials, not obscene ones. It’s a partial victory, said Stefan Presser, legal director of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The Judge said the law failed adequately to define indecent, making it too vague to be constitutional. Where I do feel that the plaintiffs have raised serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful questions is in their argument that the (legislation) is unconstitutionally vague in the use of the undefined term ‘indecent’, he ruled. The Justice Department argued that the act clearly applied only to patently offensive material and was intended to keep it from children. But the Judge said: Depending on who is making the judgement, indecent could include a whole range of conduct not encompassed by ‘patently offensive’. A request for a preliminary injunction will be heard by a three-judge district court panel under an expedited procedure that would enable any subsequent appeal to be heard directly by the US Supreme Court. A dat e for the hearing has not yet been set.

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