Court again blocks Internet porn law

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has again upheld a judge's decision to block enforcement of a congressional effort to protect children from internet pornography.

A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia, affirmed in a July 22 ruling a lower-court opinion permanently preventing enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). It marked the third time the court has endorsed a judge's preliminary or permanent injunction against the federal law.

The decision came a day after a three-judge panel of the same appeals court threw out a $550,000 indecency fine by the Federal Communications Commission against CBS Corp. The television network received the fine for its broadcast of the controversial 2004 Super Bowl halftime show that included the baring of one of singer Janet Jackson's breasts.

Enacted in 1998, COPA is intended to prohibit commercial websites from making sexually explicit material available to children under the age of 17, but it has never been enforced.

In its latest ruling, the Third Circuit panel unanimously supported a 2007 decision by federal Judge Lowell Reed, who said COPA violated the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. In agreeing, the appeals panel said the law is vague, overly broad and censors speech that is constitutionally protected for adults.

The Third Circuit judges also agreed with Reed's opinion "that filters and the Government's promotion of filters are more effective than COPA."

After Reed issued a preliminary injunction against COPA's enforcement in 1999, the Third Circuit affirmed his ruling. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, and the justices ordered the case returned to the Third Circuit in 2002 after disagreeing with the appeals court on a section of its opinion.

The Third Circuit again supported Reed's preliminary injunction. This time, the Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court's ruling on the injunction but sent the case back to Reed for a full trial, which led to his support for a permanent injunction.

The case, ACLU v. Mukasey, could return to the high court, where chances for a reversal appear remote. The two newest justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, have joined the court since it last addressed the case, but those they replaced, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, both dissented in the earlier decision. Therefore, there would be no gain on the court for supporters of the law, unless another justice changes his or her vote.

Congress passed COPA as a response to the Supreme Court's rejection of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The justices struck down in 1997 the portion of CDA that barred the online transmission of indecent material but maintained the law's provision on obscenity. CDA, which was enacted in 1996, barred online computer distribution of obscene and indecent material to children less than 18 years of age. COPA narrowed CDA's target to commercial websites and lowered the age limit for a minor to children under 17.