Judge puts anti-porn law targeting Web sites on hold Enforcement prohibited until at least Dec. 4 for further hearings

November 20, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- A federal judge issued a temporary order yesterday prohibiting the Department of Justice from enforcing a new law that supporters say is meant to keep Web-surfing children away from online smut.

The Child Online Protection Act, signed into law Oct. 21 by

President Clinton, was to have gone into effect today.

The act is an attempt by Congress to revive portions of the similar, but much broader, 1996 Communications Decency Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional. It calls for

criminal fines of up to $50,000 a day and a prison term of up to six months for making available to children any material deemed "harmful to minors."

Civil fines under the law could amount to $100,000 a day.

U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. said after a hearing in Philadelphia yesterday that a group challenging the new law on constitutional grounds was likely to succeed in its effort.

His order put the act on hold at least until Dec. 4, but he indicated from the bench that he expected to extend that deadline so the government and the law's challengers would have more time to prepare for a hearing on whether to make his order permanent.

The challengers, headed by the American Civil Liberties Union, had argued that the act was unconstitutional because it would force operators of many commercial Web sites not in the business of pornography to remove pictures and text that, though inappropriate for minors, did not constitute illegal obscenity.

In testimony yesterday, the ACLU put on two witnesses who said they feared their Web sites -- one for a small chain of gay-and-lesbian bookstores, the other for a provocative online magazine called Salon that often carries sexually explicit writings by its columnists -- might have to shut down if the law went into effect.

At one point, one of the witnesses, David Talbot, chief executive officer and editor of Salon, read to the court a steamy passage from Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress on the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair.

The passage is posted on the Salon Web site, and Talbot said he believed the words "very well might" put him at risk of criminal prosecution under the law.

"It's difficult to edit a magazine from a jail cell," he told the judge.

The government's attorney, Karen Stewart, a senior trial lawyer for the Justice Department, objected to Talbot's comments on grounds that the Starr report, as an example of political speech, was "clearly outside of the scope of the matter."

Talbot, of San-Francisco-based Salon, and Norman Laurila, the owner of A Different Light Bookstores -- gay-and-lesbian-oriented shops in New York, San Francisco and West Hollywood, Calif. -- said they would suffer precipitous losses of online visitors to their Web sites, and corresponding revenue losses, if forced to verify the ages of visitors through credit card numbers or other means, as called for in the act.

"At least for the time being, free speech on the Web is safe," ACLU attorney Christopher Hansen declared after Reed's ruling.

But Bruce Taylor, president of the anti-pornography National Law Center for Children and Families, said in a reference to the temporary nature of the judge's order, "We're not done."

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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