WASHINGTON -- Giving the First Amendment a futuristic cast for the digital age, a federal court in Philadelphia yesterday temporarily blocked a new law designed to shield children from sexually explicit ideas and images on the Internet.
The three-judge U.S. District Court ruled that Internet users are entitled to the strongest constitutional protection. It was the first major ruling defining the interface between the Constitution and the global electronic town meeting that now includes perhaps 40 million people linked by uncounted numbers of computers.
Calling the Internet "a never-ending worldwide conversation," District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote that it "deserves the broadest possible protection" from government controls over what is said and seen. That means the same hands-off protection that the print press gets -- that is, more protection than broadcasts on the air or on cable now have.
Any attempt to regulate the content of Internet expression, Judge Dalzell added, could destroy "the global village" while trying to protect its children.
As if to illustrate the modernity of the decision, the full text of the 175-page opinion appeared within minutes on the Internet, and set up an electronic din of responses from users.
Around the Internet's World Wide Web, sites proclaimed "We Won!" and "Free Speech wins 3-0 in court!" Said a posting by Voters Telecommunications Watch: "After 18 months of work, netizens finally got the justice they so richly deserve." Invitations to join celebratory rallies abounded in New York, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
"It was like fireworks going off" in celebration, said Shabbir Safdar of the Voters Telecommunications group.
The Internet is a giant network -- its size beyond precise measurement -- connecting a rapidly expanding number of smaller networks, with ideas and images exchanged instantaneously through "cyberspace." It has at least 9.4 million "host computers" worldwide, and many millions of personal computers linked through modems. Its user list is expected to rise to 200 million before century's end.
Everything from library card catalogs to information on how to have safe sex or cook an omelette is available in the vast digital storage vaults of the Internet.
It also can be used much like a telephone, for one-to-one conversations via electronic mail or "e-mail." The court said this method of communicating created "the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen."
The Internet was the direct target of Congress when it passed the Communications Decency Act, signed into law four months ago by President Clinton. The aim was to keep youths under age 18 from indecent or "patently offensive" expression on the Internet.
But the court said yesterday that there is no way to identify who is using the Internet, and no sure way to screen out only minors, so the law inevitably would cut off adults' access to programs that the Constitution allows them to see and use.
One of the judges said that "it is highly unlikely that a very young child will be randomly 'surfing' the Web sites and come across 'indecent' or 'patently offensive' material."
With each of the judges on the panel giving different reasons, the court said two parts of the 4-month-old federal law probably would be struck down after further review, and other parts of it were unconstitutional as written.
The court barred enforcement of any part of the law against Internet "indecency" until after a final ruling is issued, probably months from now. The law might never be enforced unless it survives ultimate review in the Supreme Court.
A swift appeal of the case, by the Clinton administration or other supporters of the new law, is a near certainty. That appeal would go directly to the Supreme Court, but may not be acted upon there until next fall.
In his separate District Court opinion, which went the furthest to discuss the constitutionality of the new law, Dalzell said its enforcement against Internet indecency would mean that many "sites, newsgroups, and chat rooms will shut down."
The Internet, he added, "would ultimately come to mirror broadcasting and print, with messages tailored to a mainstream society from speakers who could be sure that their message was likely decent in every community in the country."
"This is a very sweeping liberal decision," said a Washington communications lawyer, Michael Greenberger. If upheld by the Supreme Court, he said, the decision "is going to put tremendous pressure on the government, restricting its ability to regulate anything beyond obscenity and child pornography. ,X Whenever the court [in Philadelphia] had to turn a corner [in the ruling], it turned it on the liberal path," he said, "
Jim Neal, director of the Milton S. Eisenhower library at the Johns Hopkins University, hailed the decision as "very decisive and powerful."