[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] on Tuesday affirmed [decision, PDF] a lower court's decision [PDF; JURIST report] granting a permanent injunction against enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) [text], a federal law that imposes civil and criminal penalties on website operators for making sexually explicit materials available to minors over the Internet. The Act also requires adult websites to verify viewer age with a credit card number or any other reasonable method of age verification. The court stated that "because COPA is a content-based restriction on protected speech, it is presumptively invalid and the Government bears the burden of showing its constitutionality." Finding that the requirements of strict scrutiny were not fulfilled, the court relied heavily on the findings of fact from the lower court, and reasoned:
During oral argument, the Government contended that the First Amendment does not prohibit Congress from adopting a belt-and-suspenders approach to addressing the compellingAP has more.
government interest of protecting minors from accessing harmful material on the Web, with filters acting as the belt and COPA as the suspenders. But as counsel for plaintiffs correctly pointed out, under the First Amendment, if the belt works at least as effectively as the suspenders, then the Government cannot prosecute people for not wearing suspenders.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] lauded [ACLU press release] the Third Circuit's decision, calling it a "clear victory for free speech." The ACLU has argued that COPA allows the government to censor speech on the Internet and the group challenged the constitutionality of COPA in October 1998, the day after it was passed into law. Last year, Google fought a Justice Department subpoena [JURIST report; subpoena text, PDF] seeking to force the search engine giant to hand over a large amount of user data, including one week's worth of query searches and up to 1 million web addresses as part of a federal effort to rewrite COPA.