ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION

Print this Page
Case Basics
Docket No. 
03-218
Petitioner 
John D. Ashcroft, Attorney General
Respondent 
American Civil Liberties Union, et al.
Advocates
(argued the cause for Respondents)
(argued the cause for Petitioner)
Tags
Term:
Facts of the Case 

Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) to prevent minors from accessing pornography online. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and online publishers sued in federal court to prevent enforcement of the act, arguing that it violated the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. The District Court agreed. On appeal, a Third Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed, holding that because the act used "community standards" to decide which material was harmful to minors, it would prohibit material that was felt offensive in the most "puritanical" communities from being displayed in more "tolerant" ones.

On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that the "community standards" provision alone did not make the act unconstitutional and sent the case back to the Third Circuit for further evaluation.

The Third Circuit again prohibited implementation of the act, holding that it was likely to fail the "strict scrutiny" test because it was not narrowly tailored - that is, it prevented online publishers from publishing some material that adults had a right to access - and because it did not use the least restrictive means possible to protect children (the court found that blocking software installed on home computers by parents would do as good a job without preventing free speech). For similar reasons, the panel found that the act was unconstitutionally "overbroad" - that is, it applied to too much protected material.

Question 

Is the Child Online Protection Act's requirement that online publishers prevent children from accessing "material that is harmful to minors" likely to violate the First Amendment by restricting too much protected speech and using a method that is not the least restrictive one available?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for American Civil Liberties Union, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly

Yes. In an interesting 5-to-4 vote, with Justices Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, Thomas and Ginsburg on one side and Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia, Breyer and O'Connor on the other, the Court found that Congress had not yet met its burden to show that the COPA requirements were more effective than other methods of preventing minors. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion, wrote that the district court's injunction "was not an abuse of discretion, because on this record there are a number of plausible, less restrictive alternatives to the statute." The majority also emphasized that barring the statute's enforcement during the trial would be less harmful than allowing it, because allowing it would be likely to prevent online publishers from publishing certain material.

Cite this Page
ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 23 October 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2003/2003_03_218>.
ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2003/2003_03_218 (last visited October 23, 2014).
"ASHCROFT v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2003/2003_03_218.