ACLU v. Reno II, 31 F. Supp. 2d 473 (E.D. Pa. 1999)

Justice Thomas announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and IV, an opinion with respect to Parts III-A, III-C, and III-D, in which The Chief Justice and Justice Scalia join, and an opinion with respect to Part III-B, in which The Chief Justice, Justice O'Connor, and Justice Scalia join.

This case presents the narrow question whether the Child Online Protection Act's (COPA or Act) use of "community standards" to identify "material that is harmful
to minors" violates the First Amendment. We hold that this aspect of COPA does not render the statute facially unconstitutional.


"The Internet … offer[s] a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity." 47 U. S. C. §230(a)(3) (1994 ed., Supp. V). While "surfing" the World Wide Web, the primary method of remote information retrieval on the Internet today,1 see App. in No. 99-1324 (CA3), p. 180 (hereinafter App.), individuals can access material about topics ranging from aardvarks to Zoroastrianism. One can use the Web to read thousands of newspapers published around the globe, purchase tickets for a matinee at the neighborhood movie theater, or follow the progress of any Major League Baseball team on a pitch-by-pitch basis.

The Web also contains a wide array of sexually explicit material, including hardcore pornography. See, e.g., American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, 31 F. Supp. 2d 473, 484 (ED Pa. 1999). In 1998, for instance, there were approximately 28,000 adult sites promoting pornography on the Web. See H. R. Rep. No. 105-775, p. 7 (1998). Because "[n]avigating the Web is relatively straightforward," Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 852 (1997), and access to the Internet is widely available in homes, schools, and libraries across the country,2 see App. 177-178, children may discover this pornographic material either by deliberately accessing pornographic Web sites or by stumbling upon them. See 31 F. Supp. 2d, at 476 ("A child with minimal knowledge of a computer, the ability to operate a browser, and the skill to type a few simple words may be able to access sexual images and content over the World Wide Web").

Congress first attempted to protect children from exposure to pornographic material on the Internet by enacting the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), 110 Stat. 133. The CDA prohibited the knowing transmission over the Internet of obscene or indecent messages to any recipient under 18 years of age. See 47 U. S. C. §223(a). It also forbade any individual from knowingly sending over or displaying on the Internet certain "patently offensive" material in a manner available to persons under 18 years of age. See §223(d). The prohibition specifically extended to "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depict[ed] or describ[ed], in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs." §223(d)(1).

The CDA provided two affirmative defenses to those prosecuted under the statute. The first protected individuals who took "good faith, reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions" to restrict minors from accessing obscene, indecent, and patently offensive material over the Internet. See §223(e)(5)(A). The second shielded those who restricted minors from accessing such material "by requiring use of a verified credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number." §223(e)(5)(B).

Notwithstanding these affirmative defenses, in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, we held that the CDA's regulation of indecent transmissions, see §223(a), and the display of patently offensive material, see §223(d), ran afoul of the First Amendment. We concluded that "the CDA lack[ed] the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech" because, "[i]n order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppress[ed] a large amount of speech that adults ha[d] a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another." 521 U. S., at 874.

Our holding was based on three crucial considerations. First, "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." Id., at 876. Second, "[t]he breadth of the CDA's coverage [was] wholly unprecedented." Id., at 877. "Its open-ended prohibitions embrace[d]," not only commercial speech or commercial entities, but also "all nonprofit entities and individuals posting indecent messages or displaying them on their own computers in the presence of minors." Ibid. In addition, because the CDA did not define the terms "indecent" and "patently offensive," the statute "cover[ed] large amounts of nonpornographic material with serious educational or other value." Ibid. As a result, regulated subject matter under the CDA extended to "discussions about prison rape or safe sexual practices, artistic images that include nude subjects, and arguably the card catalog of the Carnegie Library." Id., at 878. Third, we found that neither affirmative defense set forth in the CDA "constitute[d] the sort of ‘narrow tailoring’ that [would] save an otherwise patently invalid unconstitutional provision." Id., at 882. Consequently, only the CDA's ban on the knowing transmission of obscene messages survived scrutiny because obscene speech enjoys no First Amendment protection. See id., at 883.

After our decision in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, Congress explored other avenues for restricting minors' access to pornographic material on the Internet. In particular, Congress passed and the President signed into law the Child Online Protection Act, 112 Stat. 2681-
736 (codified in 47 U. S. C. §231 (1994 ed., Supp. V)). COPA prohibits any person from "knowingly and with knowledge of the character of the material, in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web, mak[ing] any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors." 47 U. S. C. §231(a)(1).

Apparently responding to our objections to the breadth of the CDA's coverage, Congress limited the scope of COPA's coverage in at least three ways. First, while the CDA applied to communications over the Internet as a whole, including, for example, e-mail messages, COPA applies only to material displayed on the World Wide Web. Second, unlike the CDA, COPA covers only communications made "for commercial purposes."3 Ibid. And third, while the CDA prohibited "indecent" and "patently offensive" communications, COPA restricts only the narrower category of "material that is harmful to minors." Ibid.

Drawing on the three-part test for obscenity set forth in Miller v. California, 413 U. S. 15 (1973), COPA defines "material that is harmful to minors" as

"any communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording, writing, or other matter of any kind that is obscene or that—

"(A) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient

"(B) depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast; and

"(C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors." 47 U. S. C. §231(e)(6).

Like the CDA, COPA also provides affirmative defenses to those subject to prosecution under the statute. An individual may qualify for a defense if he, "in good faith, has restricted access by minors to material that is harmful to minors—(A) by requiring the use of a credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number; (B) by accepting a digital certificate that verifies age; or (C) by any other reasonable measures that are feasible under available technology." §231(c)(1). Persons violating COPA are subject to both civil and criminal sanctions. A civil penalty of up to $50,000 may be imposed for each violation of the statute. Criminal penalties consist of up to six months in prison and/or a maximum fine of $50,000. An additional fine of $50,000 may be imposed for any intentional violation of the statute. §231(a).

One month before COPA was scheduled to go into effect, respondents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statute in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Respondents are a diverse group of organizations,4 most of which maintain their own Web sites. While the vast majority of content on their Web sites is available for free, respondents all derive income from their sites. Some, for example, sell advertising that is displayed on their Web sites, while others either sell goods directly over their sites or charge artists for the privilege of posting material. 31 F. Supp. 2d, at 487. All respondents either post or have members that post sexually oriented material on the Web. Id., at 480. Respondents' Web sites contain "resources on obstetrics, gynecology, and sexual health; visual art and poetry; resources designed for gays and lesbians; information about books and stock photographic images offered for sale; and online magazines." Id., at 484.

In their complaint, respondents alleged that, although they believed that the material on their Web sites was valuable for adults, they feared that they would be prosecuted under COPA because some of that material "could be construed as ‘harmful to minors’ in some communities." App. 63. Respondents' facial challenge claimed, inter alia, that COPA violated adults' rights under the First and Fifth Amendments because it (1) "create[d] an effective ban on constitutionally protected speech by and to adults"; (2) "[was] not the least restrictive means of accomplishing any compelling governmental purpose"; and (3) "[was] substantially overbroad."5 Id., at 100-101.

The District Court granted respondents' motion for a preliminary injunction, barring the Government from enforcing the Act until the merits of respondents' claims could be adjudicated. 31 F. Supp. 2d, at 499. Focusing on respondents' claim that COPA abridged the free speech rights of adults, the District Court concluded that respondents had established a likelihood of success on the merits. Id., at 498. The District Court reasoned that because COPA constitutes content-based regulation of sexual expression protected by the First Amendment, the statute, under this Court's precedents, was "presumptively invalid" and "subject to strict scrutiny." Id., at 493. The District Court then held that respondents were likely to establish at trial that COPA could not withstand such scrutiny because, among other reasons, it was not apparent that COPA was the least restrictive means of preventing minors from accessing "harmful to minors" material. Id., at 497.

The Attorney General of the United States appealed the District Court's ruling. American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, 217 F. 3d 162 (CA3 2000). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. Rather than reviewing the District Court's "holding that COPA was not likely to succeed in surviving strict scrutiny analysis," the Court of Appeals based its decision entirely on a ground that was not relied upon below and that was "virtually ignored by the parties and the amicus in their respective briefs." Id., at 173-174. The Court of Appeals concluded that COPA's use of "contemporary community standards" to identify material that is harmful to minors rendered the statute substantially overbroad. Because "Web publishers are without any means to limit access to their sites based on the geographic location of particular Internet users," the Court of Appeals reasoned that COPA would require "any material that might be deemed harmful by the most puritan of communities in any state" to be placed behind an age or credit card verification system. Id., at 175. Hypothesizing that this step would require Web publishers to shield "vast amounts of material," ibid., the Court of Appeals was "persuaded that this aspect of COPA, without reference to its other provisions, must lead inexorably to a holding of a likelihood of unconstitutionality of the entire COPA statute." Id., at 174.

We granted the Attorney General's petition for certiorari, 532 U. S. 1037 (2001), to review the Court of Appeals' determination that COPA likely violates the First Amendment because it relies, in part, on community standards to identify material that is harmful to minors, and now vacate the Court of Appeals' judgment.


The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech." This provision embodies "[o]ur profound national commitment to the free exchange of ideas." Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U. S. 657, 686 (1989). "[A]s a general matter, ‘the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.’ " Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U. S. 60, 65 (1983) (quoting Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U. S. 92, 95 (1972)). However, this principle, like other First Amendment principles, is not absolute. Cf. Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46, 56 (1988).

Obscene speech, for example, has long been held to fall outside the purview of the First Amendment. See, e.g., Roth v. United States, 354 U. S. 476, 484-485 (1957). But this Court struggled in the past to define obscenity in a manner that did not impose an impermissible burden on protected speech. See Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas, 390 U. S. 676, 704 (1968) (Harlan, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (referring to the "intractable obscenity problem"); see also Miller v. California, 413 U. S., at 20-23 (reviewing "the somewhat tortured history of th[is] Court's obscenity decisions"). The difficulty resulted from the belief that "in the area of freedom of speech and press the courts must always remain sensitive to any infringement on genuinely serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific expression." Id., at 22-23.

Ending over a decade of turmoil, this Court in Miller set forth the governing three-part test for assessing whether material is obscene and thus unprotected by the First Amendment: "(a) [W]hether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Id., at 24 (internal citations omitted; emphasis added).

Miller adopted the use of "community standards" from Roth, which repudiated an earlier approach for assessing objectionable material. Beginning in the 19th century, English courts and some American courts allowed material to be evaluated from the perspective of particularly sensitive persons. See, e.g., Queen v. Hicklin [1868] L. R. 3 Q. B. 360; see also Roth, 354 U. S., at 488-489, and n. 25 (listing relevant cases). But in Roth, this Court held that this sensitive person standard was "unconstitutionally restrictive of the freedoms of speech and press" and approved a standard requiring that material be judged from the perspective of "the average person, applying contemporary community standards." Id., at 489. The Court preserved the use of community standards in formulating the Miller test, explaining that they furnish a valuable First Amendment safeguard: "[T]he primary concern … is to be certain that … [material] will be judged by its impact on an average person, rather than a particularly susceptible or sensitive person—or indeed a totally insensitive one." Miller, 413 U. S., at 33 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Hamling v. United States, 418 U. S. 87, 107 (1974) (emphasizing that the principal purpose of the community standards criterion "is to assure that the material is judged neither on the basis of each juror's personal opinion, nor by its effect on a particularly sensitive or insensitive person or group").


The Court of Appeals, however, concluded that this Court's prior community standards jurisprudence "has no applicability to the Internet and the Web" because "Web publishers are currently without the ability to control the geographic scope of the recipients of their communications." 217 F. 3d, at 180. We therefore must decide whether this technological limitation renders COPA's reliance on community standards constitutionally infirm.6


In addressing this question, the parties first dispute the nature of the community standards that jurors will be instructed to apply when assessing, in prosecutions under COPA, whether works appeal to the prurient interest of minors and are patently offensive with respect to minors.7 Respondents contend that jurors will evaluate material using "local community standards," Brief for Respondents 40, while petitioner maintains that jurors will not consider the community standards of any particular geographic area, but rather will be "instructed to consider the standards of the adult community as a whole, without geographic specification." Brief for Petitioner 38.

In the context of this case, which involves a facial challenge to a statute that has never been enforced, we do not think it prudent to engage in speculation as to whether certain hypothetical jury instructions would or would not be consistent with COPA, and deciding this case does not require us to do so. It is sufficient to note that community standards need not be defined by reference to a precise geographic area. See Jenkins v. Georgia, 418 U. S. 153, 157 (1974) ("A State may choose to define an obscenity offense in terms of ‘contemporary community standards’ as defined in Miller without further specification … or it may choose to define the standards in more precise geographic terms, as was done by California in Miller"). Absent geographic specification, a juror applying community standards will inevitably draw upon personal "knowledge of the community or vicinage from which he comes." Hamling, supra, at 105. Petitioner concedes the latter point, see Reply Brief for Petitioner 3-4, and admits that, even if jurors were instructed under COPA to apply the standards of the adult population as a whole, the variance in community standards across the country could still cause juries in different locations to reach inconsistent conclusions as to whether a particular work is "harmful to minors." Brief for Petitioner 39.

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