Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union

United States Supreme Court

521 U.S. 844, 117 S.Ct. 2329, 138 L.Ed. 2d. 874 (1997)

 

            In this widely publicized case, the Court considers the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act, federal legislation enacted to protect minors from “indecent” and “patently offensive” communications on the Internet.

 

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            . . . Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, we agree with the three judge District Court that the statute abridges “the freedom of speech” protected by the First Amendment. . . .

 

            . . . In its appeal, the Government argues that the District Court erred in holding that the CDA violated both the First Amendment because it is overbroad and the Fifth Amendment because it is vague. While we discuss the vagueness of the CDA because of its relevance to the First Amendment overbreadth inquiry, we conclude that the judgment should be affirmed without reaching the Fifth Amendment issue. We begin our analysis by reviewing the principal authorities on which the Government relies. Then, after describing the overbreadth of the CDA, we consider the Government’s specific contentions, including its submission that we save portions of the statute either by severance or by fashioning judicial limitations on the scope of its coverage.

 

            In arguing for reversal, the Government contends that the CDA is plainly constitutional under three of our prior decisions: (1) Ginsberg v. New York . . . (1968); (2) FCC v. Pacifica Foundation . . . (1978); and (3) Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., . . . (1986). A close look at these cases, however, raises—rather than relieves—doubts concerning the constitutionality of the CDA. . . . [Justice Stevens proceeds to discuss these precedents.]

 

            These precedents . . . surely do not require us to uphold the CDA and are fully consistent with the application of the most stringent review of its provisions.

 

            In Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad . . . (1975), we observed that “[e]ach medium of expression . . . may present its own problems.” Thus, some of our cases have recognized special justifications for regulation of the broadcast media that are not applicable to other speakers, see Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC . . . (1969); FCC v. Pacifica Foundation . . . (1978). In these cases, the Court relied on the history of extensive government regulation of the broadcast medium; the scarcity of available frequencies at its inception; and its “invasive” nature.

 

            Those factors are not present in cyberspace. Neither before nor after the enactment of the CDA have the vast democratic fora of the Internet been subject to the type of government supervision and regulation that has attended the broadcast industry. Moreover, the Internet is not as “invasive” as radio or television. The District Court specifically found that “[c]ommunications over the Internet do not ‘invade’ an individual’s home or appear on one’s computer screen unbidden. Users seldom encounter content ‘by accident.’” It also found that “[a]lmost all sexually explicit images are preceded by warnings as to the content,” and cited testimony that “ ‘odds are slim’ that a user would come across a sexually explicit sight by accident.” . . .

 

            Finally, unlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” . . . We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

 

            Regardless of whether the CDA is so vague that it violates the Fifth Amendment, the many ambiguities concerning the scope of its coverage render it problematic for purposes of the First Amendment. For instance, each of the two parts of the CDA uses a different linguistic form. The first uses the word “indecent,” . . . while the second speaks of material that “in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” Given the absence of a definition of either term, this difference in language will provoke uncertainty among speakers about how the two standards relate to each other and just what they mean. Could a speaker confidently assume that a serious discussion about birth control practices, homosexuality, the First Amendment issues raised by the Appendix to our Pacifica opinion, or the consequences of prison rape would not violate the CDA? This uncertainty undermines the likelihood that the CDA has been carefully tailored to the congressional goal of protecting minors from potentially harmful materials.

 

            The vagueness of the CDA is a matter of special concern for two reasons. First, the CDA is a content based regulation of speech. The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech. . . . Second, the CDA is a criminal statute. In addition to the opprobrium and stigma of a criminal conviction, the CDA threatens violators with penalties including up to two years in prison for each act of violation. The severity of criminal sanctions may well cause speakers to remain silent rather than communicate even arguably unlawful words, ideas, and images. . . . As a practical matter, this increased deterrent effect, coupled with the “risk of discriminatory enforcement” of vague regulations, poses greater First Amendment concerns. . . .

 

            In contrast to Miller [v. California] and our other previous cases, the CDA . . . presents a greater threat of censoring speech that, in fact, falls outside the statute’s scope. Given the vague contours of the coverage of the statute, it unquestionably silences some speakers whose messages would be entitled to constitutional protection. That danger provides further reason for insisting that the statute not be overly broad. The CDA’s burden on protected speech cannot be justified if it could be avoided by a more carefully drafted statute.

 

            We are persuaded that the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech. 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. That burden on adult speech is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving the legitimate purpose that the statute was enacted to serve.

 

            In evaluating the free speech rights of adults, we have made it perfectly clear that “[s]exual expression which is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment.” . . . Indeed, Pacifica itself admonished that “the fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it.” . . .

 

            It is true that we have repeatedly recognized the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials. . . . But that interest does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults. As we have explained, the Government may not “reduc[e] the adult population . . . to . . . only what is fit for children.” . . .

 

            In arguing that the CDA does not so diminish adult communication, the Government relies on the incorrect factual premise that prohibiting a transmission whenever it is known that one of its recipients is a minor would not interfere with adult to adult communication. The findings of the District Court make clear that this premise is untenable.

 

            Given the size of the potential audience for most messages, in the absence of a viable age verification process, the sender must be charged with knowing that one or more minors will likely view it. Knowledge that, for instance, one or more members of a 100 person chat group will be minor—and therefore that it would be a crime to send the group an indecent message—would surely burden communication among adults.

 

            The District Court found that at the time of trial existing technology did not include any effective method for a sender to prevent minors from obtaining access to its communications on the Internet without also denying access to adults. The Court found no effective way to determine the age of a user who is accessing material through e mail, mail exploders, newsgroups, or chat rooms. As a practical matter, the Court also found that it would be prohibitively expensive for noncommercial—as well as some commercial—speakers who have web sites to verify that their users are adults. . . . These limitations must inevitably curtail a significant amount of adult communication on the Internet. By contrast, the District Court found that “[d]espite its limitations, currently available user based software suggests that a reasonably effective method by which parents can prevent their children from accessing sexually explicit and other material which parents may believe is inappropriate for their children will soon be widely available.” . . .

 

            The breadth of the CDA’s coverage is wholly unprecedented. . . . [T]he scope of the CDA is not limited to commercial speech or commercial entities. Its open ended prohibitions embrace all nonprofit entities and individuals posting indecent messages or displaying them on their own computers in the presence of minors. The general, undefined terms “indecent” and “patently offensive” cover large amounts of nonpornographic material with serious educational or other value. Moreover, the “community standards” criterion as applied to the Internet means that any communication available to a nation wide audience will be judged by the standards of the community most likely to be offended by the message. The regulated subject matter includes any of the seven “dirty words” used in the Pacifica monologue, the use of which the Government’s expert acknowledged could constitute a felony. . . . It may also extend to discussions about prison rape or safe sexual practices, artistic images that include nude subjects, and arguably the card catalogue of the Carnegie Library. . . .

 

            The breadth of this content based restriction of speech imposes an especially heavy burden on the Government to explain why a less restrictive provision would not be as effective as the CDA. It has not done so. The arguments in this Court have referred to possible alternatives such as requiring that indecent material be “tagged” in a way that facilitates parental control of material coming into their homes, making exceptions for messages with artistic or educational value, providing some tolerance for parental choice, and regulating some portions of the Internet—such as commercial web sites—differently than others, such as chat rooms. Particularly in the light of the absence of any detailed findings by the Congress, or even hearings addressing the special problems of the CDA, we are persuaded that the CDA is not narrowly tailored if that requirement has any meaning at all. . . .

 

            We agree with the District Court’s conclusion that the CDA places an unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech, and that the defenses do not constitute the sort of “narrow tailoring” that will save an otherwise patently invalid unconstitutional provision. . . . The CDA, casting a far darker shadow over free speech, threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community. . . .

 

            In this Court, though not in the District Court, the Government asserts that—in addition to its interest in protecting children—its “[e]qually significant” interest in fostering the growth of the Internet provides an independent basis for upholding the constitutionality of the CDA. . . . The Government apparently assumes that the unregulated availability of “indecent” and “patently offensive” material on the Internet is driving countless citizens away from the medium because of the risk of exposing themselves or their children to harmful material.

 

            We find this argument singularly unpersuasive. The dramatic expansion of this new marketplace of ideas contradicts the factual basis of this contention. The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal. As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.

 

            For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is affirmed.

 

Justice O’Connor, with whom the Chief Justice joins, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

 

            . . . I view the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) as little more than an attempt by Congress to create “adult zones” on the Internet. Our precedent indicates that the creation of such zones can be constitutionally sound. Despite the soundness of its purpose, however, portions of the CDA are unconstitutional because they stray from the blueprint our prior cases have developed for constructing a “zoning law” that passes constitutional muster. . . .

 

            . . . [T]o prevail in a facial challenge, it is not enough for a plaintiff to show “some” overbreadth. Our cases require a proof of “real” and “substantial” overbreadth, . . . and appellees have not carried their burden in this case. In my view, the universe of speech constitutionally protected as to minors but banned by the CDA—i.e., the universe of material that is “patently offensive,” but which nonetheless has some redeeming value for minors or does not appeal to their prurient interest—is a very small one. Appellees cite no examples of speech falling within this universe and do not attempt to explain why that universe is substantial “in relation to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep.” . . . That the CDA might deny minors the right to obtain material that has some “value,” . . . is largely beside the point. While discussions about prison rape or nude art . . . may have some redeeming education value for adults, they do not necessarily have any such value for minors, and . . . minors only have a First Amendment right to obtain patently offensive material that has “redeeming social importance for minors.” . . . There is also no evidence in the record to support the contention that “many [e] mail transmissions from an adult to a minor are conversations between family members,” . . . and no support for the legal proposition that such speech is absolutely immune from regulation. Accordingly, in my view, the CDA does not burden a substantial amount of minors’ constitutionally protected speech.

 

            . . . [T]he constitutionality of the CDA as a zoning law hinges on the extent to which it substantially interferes with the First Amendment rights of adults. Because the rights of adults are infringed only by the “display” provision and by the “indecency transmission” and “specific person” provisions as applied to communications involving more than one adult, I would invalidate the CDA only to that extent. Insofar as the “indecency transmission” and “specific person” provisions prohibit the use of indecent speech in communications between an adult and one or more minors, however, they can and should be sustained. The Court reaches a contrary conclusion, and from that holding that I respectfully dissent.