Venturing into the law of cyberspace for the first time, the Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide how free-speech protections created more than 200 years ago apply on the frontiers of global communications.
Granting an appeal by the Clinton administration, the justices will review the constitutionality of a new - but unenforced - federal law that makes it a crime to distribute “indecent” or “patently offensive” sexual material to children on the vast, computer-linked marketplace of ideas known as the Internet.
The high court’s ruling, expected by July, is likely to prescribe the limits of government regulation over a unique, fast-growing medium well into the 21st century.
An estimated 40 million people currently use the Internet, a figure expected to increase to 200 million by 1999. About 60 percent of the estimated 9.4 million host computers connected to the Internet are in the United States.
For the nine justices, the Internet case will be a learning experience. They are largely unfamiliar with the medium. None are regularly on-line and few, if any, have browsed the Internet, according to Toni House, the Supreme Court’s chief spokeswoman.
The focus of the case before them is the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a product of widespread anxiety about the on-line availability of sexually explicit materials to American children, who were described in congressional debates as “the computer experts in our nation’s families.”
About 35 percent of homes with on-line accounts have children under the age of 18, according to a study presented to Congress.
And so, concluded Sen. Jim Exon, D-Neb., a sponsor of the Internet decency legislation, the “most perverse pornography” is “only a few click-click-clicks away from any child.”
Soon after President Clinton signed the bill into law in February, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, software giant Microsoft Corp. and an array of other Internet users and service providers filed suit.
They said the law would stifle Internet discussions of such topics as gay life, AIDS, contraception and prisoner rape. The targets of the law, they said, are far broader than obscenity and child pornography, which are already illegal.
In previous rulings, the Supreme Court has struck down laws banning “indecent” speech. Now the court must decide whether such rulings apply to a new medium with distinctive qualities.
So far, opponents of the new law have succeeded in preventing it from going into effect, much to the dismay of conservative religious groups and others who believe the law would shield children from exposure to online sexual materials.
A three-judge panel in Philadelphia, delving deeply into the technology of the Internet, found the terms “indecent” and “patently offensive” to be unconstitutionally vague and concluded that the law threatens expression protected by the First Amendment.
The ACLU said it was not surprised that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, given the importance of the issue. In a statement, the group said it was confident the justices would uphold the lowercourt ruling.
In a separate suit filed by the publisher of American Reporter, an electronic daily newspaper, a three-judge panel in New York also concluded that the restrictions of the indecency law effectively barred adults from engaging in constitutionally protected speech.
The Clinton administration appealed that ruling, too, but asked the Supreme Court to do nothing until it decides the Philadelphia case.
xxxx HOME REMEDIES Parents can control their children’s access to Internet sites by using such filtering software as CyberSitter and SurfWatch, or voluntary rating systems such as SafeSurf, which has 50,000 child-friendly sites in its CyberPlayground.