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Case Basics
Docket No. 
American Civil Liberties Union
(Argued the cause for the respondents)
(Argued the cause for the petitioner)
Facts of the Case 

Unlike the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) applies only to material displayed on the World Wide Web, covers only communications made for commercial purposes, and restricts only "material that is harmful to minors." Moreover, COPA requires jurors to apply "contemporary community standards" in assessing material. Before it was scheduled to go into effect, a number of organizations affected by COPA filed suit, alleging that the statute violated adults' First Amendment rights because it effectively banned constitutionally protected speech, was not the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling governmental purpose, and was substantially overbroad. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction. In affirming, the Court of Appeals, reasoning that COPA's use of contemporary community standards to identify material that is harmful to minors rendered the statute substantially overbroad.


Does the Child Online Protection Act's use of "community standards" to identify "material that is harmful to minors" violate the First Amendment?

Decision: 8 votes for Ashcroft, 1 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 47 U.S.C. 231

No. In an 8-1 opinion delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court held that COPA's reliance on community standards to identify what material is harmful to minors does not by itself render the statute substantially overbroad for First Amendment purposes. The Court expressed no view as to whether COPA was overbroad for other reasons or was unconstitutionally vague and did not vacate the preliminary injunction because it could not do so without addressing matters yet to be considered. "In its original form, the community standard provided a shield for communications that are offensive only to the least tolerant members of society," argued Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent. "In the context of the Internet, however, community standards become a sword, rather than a shield. If a prurient appeal is offensive in a puritan village, it may be a crime to post it on the World Wide Web."

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ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 25 August 2015. <>.
ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 25, 2015).
"ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 25, 2015,