For nearly a decade, the federal courts have addressed the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a federal law enacted by Congress in 1998 to protect minors from viewing sexually explicit materials published on the Internet. The law was intended to improve upon the Communications Decency Act (CDA), Congress’ first effort to regulate sexually explicit Internet materials, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1997.
The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) has been involved in the litigation challenging COPA since 1999, filing several amicus curiae briefs in support of the plaintiffs.
On Tuesday, July 22, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals once again upheld a federal district court’s decision to overturn COPA, stating that “COPA cannot withstand a strict scrutiny, vagueness or overbreadth analysis, and thus is unconstitutional.” It found that the law’s content-based regulations — which mandate fines and jail terms for anyone who “knowingly” posts “harmful to minors” materials to the Internet — unlawfully sweep in a broad swath of constitutionally protected speech. It further concluded that COPA is not the least restrictive means of achieving the government’s stated goal of protecting children, given that parents concerned with protecting children can use software filters that block sexually explicit Internet content without impairing adults’ ability to freely access the Internet.
The government will review the opinion and consider its next steps. It can appeal the Third Circuit’s decision to the full appeals court or to the Supreme Court.
The court’s opinion is available online.