Supreme Court allows Congress' 'dial-a-porn' law to stand

January 28, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON OFB — WASHINGTON -- Congress got word from the Supreme Court yesterday that it finally had succeeded in devising a constitutional way to keep children from calling "dial-a-porn" messages on the telephone.

In a brief, unexplained order, the court refused to hear a constitutional challenge to a 1989 law aimed at blocking children's calls to sexually explicit message lines. The law demands consent in advance before a message can be played to a caller.

That law was Congress' third try; two earlier laws were struck down by lower courts or, in part, by the Supreme Court. This time, the court did not even bother to review the newest law; it simply voted to leave intact a lower court decision upholding that law.

In another significant action yesterday, the court ruled, 6-3, that Southern states and local governments may add to or cut back on the duties of elected officials -- and even pass off some of their duties to appointed officials -- without first getting the federal government's approval under the Voting Rights Act.

The act applies mainly in the South, to states or localities that formerly denied voting equality to blacks. If those governments alterprocedures that might affect black voters, they must first get approval from the Justice Department or a special federal court.

But in a decision that flatly rejected the view of the Bush administration and civil rights lawyers, the court cut back significantly on the law's scope. It declared that the act does not apply to shifts in the decision-making power of state and local officials. Those shifts, it said, are not related directly to voting and do not have an impact on it.

The administration and civil rights advocates had contended that transfers of decision-making power could interfere significantly with therights of elected officials' black and other minority constituents.

The court's action on the "dial-a-porn" law meant that the Federal Communications Commission is now free to enforce the 1989 law. The FCC will act if it gets complaints from telephone customers demanding enforcement. The law has not been in effect since its passage.

"Dial-a-porn" telephone services are required by the law to take special steps to ensure not only that children do not hear messages that are obscene but also that they are shielded from messages that are "indecent -- a category of expression ordinarily protected by the Constitution.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court allowed the FCC to regulate "obscene" telephone messages but struck down an earlier version of the law extending those controls to "indecent" messages.

It was in direct response to that ruling that Congress passed the new law. Under the law, a telephone company that bills #i customers who call a "dial-a-porn" number must get written permission from the customers before letting calls go through. If the "dial-a-porn" service collects its own charges from callers, it must make arrangements before putting out the message to get credit card or special identification numbers.

Other court action

Labor unions. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 yesterday that labor unions almost never will be allowed to go onto a company's private property to pass out leaflets seeking to get the workers there to join the union. Overturning a flexible policy followed for more than three years by the National Labor Relations Board, the court ruled in a Connecticut shopping center case that federal labor law bars unions from company property unless there is nowhere else, within reason, that they can contact the employees. Lechmere vs. NLRB (No. 90-970).

CASES TO BE HEARD

Waste dumping. The court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a state law seeking to keep other states' hazardous wastes from being dumped there, by imposing a tax on disposal of such trash. The case involves an Alabama tax, upheld by the state Supreme Court. A final ruling is expected by summer. Chemical Waste Management vs. Hunt (No. 91-471).

Fast-food restaurants. The court agreed to decide whether it breaks federal law for one fast-food restaurant chain to copy the "look" -- the design and layout -- of a competitor's restaurants. The issue arose in a trademark fight between two Mexican-style restaurant chains based in Texas. A lower court barred the copying and assessed $2 million in damages. Two Pesos vs. Taco Cabana (No. 91-971).

Nuclear power plants. The court also gave three New England states permission to sue a fourth to try to keep that state from shifting the burden of paying taxes on electricity bought from the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power station to customers elsewhere in New England. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island vs. New Hampshire (No. 119 Original).

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