Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844; 117 S. Ct. 2329; 138 L. Ed. 2d 874 (1997)

Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844; 117 S. Ct. 2329; 138 L. Ed. 2d 874 (1997)

Facts—The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) contained provisions designed to protect minors from “indecent” and “patently offensive” communications via the Internet. A three-judge U.S. District Court decided that these provisions conflicted with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Question—Did provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 designed to protect juveniles from adult materials on the Internet violate the First Amendment?


ReasonsJ. Stevens (7–2). Stevens began by reviewing the extraordinary growth of the Internet. Although the Internet contains a great deal of explicit sexual material, Stevens argued that “almost all sexually explicit images are preceded by warnings as to the content,” and “the ‘odds are slim’ that a user would enter a sexually explicit site by accident.” Technology exists whereby individuals could be denied access to websites unless they had a credit card or an adult password, but “credit card verification is only feasible . . . either in connection with a commercial transaction in which the card is used, or by payment to a verification agency.” The Communications Decency Act prohibited “the knowing transmission of obscene or indecent messages to any recipient under 18” or “the knowing sending or displaying of patently offensive messages in a manner that is available to a person under 18 years of age.” The terms “patently offensive” and “indecent” in the legislation at issue are “inherently vague.” Such vagueness and overbreadth pose special problems to free speech. Stevens observed that “the Internet is not as ‘invasive’ as radio or television and that, quoting the lower court, “Users seldom encounter content ‘by accident.’” The uncertainty of the meaning of terms in the statute is troubling both because they constitute “a content-based regulation of speech” and because the CDA is a criminal statute: “In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another.” The statute is not narrowly tailored to achieve its objectives.

J. O’Connor, concurring and dissenting, viewed the CDA as a way to create “adult zones” on the Internet. She would uphold the provisions related to the “knowing transmission” of indecent materials to specific juveniles but agreed that all individuals in a chat room should not have to be reduced to the level of discourse that would be appropriate for the youngest among them.

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