Comedian George Carlin’s monologue, “Seven words you can never say on television,” opened the door for the American Civil Liberties Union to convince the US Supreme Court to nullify legislation outlawing “indecent” online speech.

Twenty years ago today the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision and unanimously overturned congressional legislation that made it unlawful to transmit “indecent” material on the Internet if that content could be viewed by minors. The justices ruled that the same censorship standards being applied to broadcast radio and television could not be applied to the Internet.
“The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal,” the high court concluded. “As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it.”

(credit: Oyez Project )

The Supreme Court had decided a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the section of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) at issue could criminalize too broad a swath of speech. The ACLU maintained that the CDA did not define what “indecent” meant and that the law would dumb-down the Internet in the same manner as the censorship requirements imposed on broadcasters that transmit over public spectrum. The ACLU won its case on June 26, 1997. The decision, in conjunction with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and other surviving parts of the CDA, has provided one of the strongest legal tools for crafting today’s Internet as we know it.
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