Reno v. ACLU (1997)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Case Summary

In 1997, a group of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), challenged the “indecent transmission“ and “patently offensive display“ provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. These provisions made it a crime to send offensive Internet material to persons under age eighteen. The district court found for the ACLU. On behalf of the Federal Government, Attorney General Janet Reno appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

The Supreme Court invalidated both provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, because they violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote an opinion in which six other justices joined fully.

Justice Stevens reviewed the operation of the Internet and the difficulty of verifying the age of an Internet user. Justice Stevens pointed out several problems with the act: It did not define “indecent,“ it did not allow parents to authorize their children to access restricted materials, it applied “to the entire universe of cyberspace“ rather than to well-defined areas. Moreover, the Internet is not a “scarce“ commodity like the airwaves, so there is less justification for governmental regulation. Finally, the regulated materials do not just appear on the computer screen, but must be actively sought out.

Justice O'Connor concurred in part and dissented in part. She made an analogy to zoning law: “I view the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) as little more than an attempt by Congress to create 'adult zones' on the Internet. Our precedent indicates that the creation of such zones can be constitutionally sound.“ However, she agreed with the majority that the particular restrictions imposed by the CDA went beyond the permissible scope of legitimate zoning regulation and therefore joined the majority in finding the law unconstitutional.

More on the Case

Reno v. ACLU was the Supreme Court's first case involving cyberspace. Justice Stevens attempted to place the Internet within the structure the Court has used to decide other media-related First Amendment cases. For example, because the Internet is not a “scarce“ commodity like a license to broadcast a radio or television station, the government cannot regulate Internet content the way the Federal Communications Commission has supervised radio and television programming. The Court gave Internet communications the highest level of First Amendment protection, which traditionally has been available only to print media like newspapers and magazines.

Technological developments may also make Reno obsolete. For example, the Court's concern that the Communications Decency Act would discourage or prevent protected speech among adults was based in part on the lack of any effective way to determine the age of a person using the Internet. If child-blocking technology and age-check systems become more effective and are used more widely on the Internet, a law like the CDA might be upheld in the future.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sources +