US prOn law quashed after nine year legal battle

A controversial 1998 US anti-pornography law that has been opposed since the moment it was signed has been struck down in a federal court. The Children's Online Protection Act (COPA) has been deemed unconstitutional.

COPA imposed criminal penalties on websites which failed to stop indecent material being viewed by children. Unless they put in age checks – such as the requirement to input a credit card number – site operators would have been liable for fines of up to $50,000 per day and six months in jail.

The latest challenge to the law was brought by sexual health websites, and others, and was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It argued that the law is unconstitutional because it restricts rights to free speech.

Judge Lowell Reed in the US District Court in Philadelphia ruled in favour of the ACLU, saying that the measures demanded by the law go too far in eroding everybody's rights to protect those of a few.

"Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if [free speech] protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection," said Reed in his judgment.

"I agree with Congress that its goal of protecting children from sexually explicit materials on the web deemed harmful to them is especially crucial. This court, along with a broad spectrum of the population across the country yearn for a solution which would protect children from such material with 100 percent effectiveness," he said.

"However, I am acutely aware of my charge under the law to uphold the principles found in our nation’s Constitution and their enforcement throughout the years by the Supreme Court. I may not turn a blind eye to the law in order to attempt to satisfy my urge to protect this nation’s youth by upholding a flawed statute," said Reed.

Reed accepted the argument that software filters were now available which allow parents to control the web surfing habits of their children, and that such control is more appropriate than that exercised in a blanket manner by government.

"After nearly a decade of legal proceedings, the First Amendment has emerged victorious from the government’s illegal attempt at online censorship," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "The courts have ruled, once again, that speech on the internet is protected."

"Technology evolves at an incredibly rapid pace, and our laws face the challenge of trying to keep up," said ACLU senior staff attorney Chris Hansen, who was the ACLU's lead lawyer in the case. "Americans have the right to participate in the global conversation that happens online every moment of every day, and Congress does not have the right to censor that conversation."

The ACLU lodged an objection to the law the day it was signed by former US president Bill Clinton in 1998. An injunction was granted, was upheld in 2004, and now a permanent order has been handed to US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to stop the government enforcing the Act.