Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Reno v. ACLU, a case that determined that certain provisions of the Communication Decency Act (CDA) – which sought to govern speech online – violated the right to free speech. This decision was a landmark decision, the Court’s first about the Internet and applied the same freedom of speech rules for print to speech on the Internet (both of which are more open than TV or radio broadcasts).
The CDA was designed to protect children from “obscene or indecent” content. However, because of the breadth and vagueness of the provisions, the Court found that the CDA could also suppress speech to adults:
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.
The Court found that less restrictive alternatives could be used to achieve the same goal of reducing explicit content to children. The CDA, however, resulted in “an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.”
Reno v. ACLU is a decision that gave us the Internet as we know it today. One that is free and open, a modern town square. Celebrating this landmark ruling brings to mind a number of related issues that are at the forefront of discussions today. While Reno v. ACLU gave us a ruling that established that freedom of speech applies online, we are still fighting for strong net neutrality rules that keeps the Internet open to all and does not favor one speech over another. While the Supreme Court’s Reno v. ACLU decision applied the same First Amendment protections to online speech as print, we are still fighting for reforms to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act to ensure that the same Fourth Amendment protections that apply to print apply to online communications.
Let’s celebrate 20 years of Reno v. ACLU, but remember that there is still work to be done to ensure that Constitutional rights apply with the same force in the digital world as it did in an analog one.