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Judge Halts Enforcement of Internet Censorship Law

Thursday, November 19, 1998

PHILADELPHIA -- Civil liberties groups and Internet users everywhere breathed a sigh of relief today as a judge halted enforcement of a federal Internet censorship law until its constitutionality is ultimately resolved in court.

Ruling late today in ACLU v. Reno 2, Judge Lowell A. Reed, Jr. said that the groups have shown "a likelihood of success on the merits of at least some of their claims" that the federal Internet censorship law violates the First Amendment rights of adults. The government, Judge Reed said, presented "no binding authority or persuasive reason" why the court should not enjoin "total enforcement" of the law pending an outcome.

Significantly, the judge emphasized that the temporary restraining order, or TRO, applies to all Internet users -- not just the plaintiffs in the case -- and that, even if the law is ultimately upheld, the Administration cannot prosecute online speakers retroactively.

Indeed, the judge wrote, to enjoin the law now but leave Internet users open to potential prosecution later "would be hollow relief indeed for plaintiffs and members of the public similarly situated."

The American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) -- co-counsel in the case -- welcomed the order.

"Our clients, David Talbot, CEO of Salon Magazine and Norman Laurila, President of A Different Light Bookstores, provided compelling testimony today that if this law were not enjoined, they might be forced to shut down their websites altogether," said Ann Beeson, ACLU National Staff Attorney and a member of the legal team that appeared in court today. "That may not have been the intent of the law, but it certainly is the outcome."

Under the current schedule, the groups will return to court next on December 8 and 9 for a preliminary injunction hearing on the matter. The TRO, which expires in ten days (on Friday, December 4), will likely be extended for another 10 days in order to maintain the current status quo.

"We are very pleased with the court's initial ruling, " said Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Like the original CDA, this censorship law raises troubling implications for both free speech and privacy in the online world."

Barry Steinhardt, President of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agreed. "This is an important first step," he said. "At least for now, speech on the Internet retains the strong constitutional protection that the Supreme Court said it deserved in the original ACLU v. Reno case."


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