Advocates of free speech are claiming victory after a US court has declared unconstitutional the Communications Deceny Act (CDA) that was one portion of the omnibus Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The court's decision is "a major victory for the Internet, a major victory for free speech", says Jerry Berman of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public-interest organisation based in Washington, DC, and one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The three-judge panel in the US District Court in Philadelphia found the CDA unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated rights of free speech. The act had made it a felony to distribute "indecent" or "patently offensive" material to minors over the Internet or online services.
The plaintiffs evidently made "a persuasive case to the court that the Internet was a different medium", distinct from broadcast media such as television and therefore entitled to the full protection afforded print media under US law, Berman says.
If the US government chooses to appeal the decision, which observers think likely, the case will go to the US Supreme Court, the nation's final arbiter.
At a press conference following the decision, plaintiffs decried what they saw as the US Congress' parochialism in attempting to legislate control of content on the Internet.
The CDA was "designed or intended to protect minors from indecent communication, but Congress forgot that the Internet is a global medium", says Bruce Ennis, lead attorney in the case.
The lawsuit against the CDA was filed by a coalition of 27 plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, America Online, Apple, CompuServe, Microsoft, Prodigy and a number of book and newspaper publishers.