The porn supremacy

The United States Supreme Court signaled the death knell for a federal law aimed at curbing Internet smut when they declined to reconsider a doomed federal law last week.

President Barack Obama , take note: if youâÄôre truly interested in uniting this nation, it seems thereâÄôs nothing that brings political factions together in this country like a good old-fashioned anti-pornography law. Take, for example, the ill-fated Child Online Protection Act , or COPA. It was originally passed through Congress with bipartisan support in 1998 and enthusiastically signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton, and later championed by George W. Bush. The goal of the law, according to its own language, was âÄúthe protection of the physical and psychological well-being of minors by shielding them from online materials that are harmful to themâÄù âÄî essentially, pornography. In the poetic words of our nationâÄôs legislators this harmful content includes anything that displays âÄúan 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.âÄù This is CongressâÄôs way of saying âÄúNo Internet porn for kids.âÄù Lyrical, no? Anyway, the bill was doomed from the start. The day after the law was enacted on Oct. 21, 1998, several groups, including Internet pornographers, Web users, and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in federal court and were awarded with a federal injunction prohibiting the government from enforcing the law. At the time, Janet Reno was the attorney general. In her defense of the law, she argued that there was a good reason for the law (protecting the kids) and that enforcement of the law (by requiring proof of age via credit card numbers and other personal identifiers on adult websites) wasnâÄôt really that big of a problem. Even if it was, the law was worth it, you know, for the kids. The ACLU, et al., disagreed. They argued that COPAâÄôs proposed method to keep Internet porn away from kids painted with too broad a brush, and would necessarily threaten the free speech rights of adults, for whom the âÄúpost-pubescent female breastâÄù is not only legal, but constitutionally protected speech. Essentially, the ACLU was arguing that the bill would throw such fear into law-abiding porn-peddlers and various other lovers of âÄúsimulated normal or perverted sexual actsâÄù that they would either self-censor their content or avoid the smutty quagmire altogether, resulting in less âÄúspeechâÄù and, the argument alleged, a constitutional violation. The district court heard testimony from website operators and from a guy who ran an online business called Condomania (where, coincidently, you can purchase âÄúelection protectionâÄù condoms featuring your choice of prominent politicians, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Gov. Sarah Palin , but I digress). The court discussed at length the steps necessary for website operators to install age-verification software, and they engaged in the impossibly slippery business of weighing the potential harms and benefits of the law for all the parties involved. At the end of the day, the court decided that, although they were sympathetic to the plight of parents and the risks inherent in children being exposed to sexually explicit materials on the Internet, the law could not stand. It violated the First Amendment. âÄúThe judicial power is often difficult in its exercise,âÄù the court stated. The case involved âÄúa clear and simple statute to be judged against a pure command of the Constitution.âÄù The Constitution won. The law hasnâÄôt been enforced since. This all took place in 1998. The law lost, but it didnâÄôt go down without a fight. Ten years later, a different administration with a different attorney general was still fighting to keep the law alive. Since that first decision, advocates and opponents of the law have wrangled over its intricacies all the way to the Supreme Court and back again âÄî twice, actually. After Reno, the case was argued by Attorneys General John Ashcroft , Alberto Gonzales , and most recently, Michael Mukasey. This past July, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals again found the law unconstitutionally overbroad. It determined that there was simply no way to interpret the law without somehow infringing upon the First Amendment rights of consenting adults. So the law had to fail. The only chance left was an appeal to the Supreme Court, and on Jan. 21, the nationâÄôs high court declined to hear the case, Mukasey v. ACLU , without comment. COPA is now dead. After 10 years and three presidents, the law is finally kaput, and has never been enforced. The First Amendment , incidentally, reads as follows, in its entirety: âÄúCongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.âÄù Wait a second. You mean that from this sentence, the courts have decided that the United States Congress, chosen by the people, cannot pass a law that forces Internet pornographers to ensure that those using their services are old enough to do so legally, because to do so would violate the âÄúfreedom of speechâÄù enshrined in the Bill of Rights? Bill Clinton disagreed with that conclusion, and so did George W. Bush , as evidenced by their continual struggle for COPAâÄôs acceptance. But a couple hundred years before Clinton and Bush and Playboy.com, our nationâÄôs founders determined that, for whatever reason, speech would be sacred in this country. Perhaps it was because they realized that the government was a poor judge of speech which is acceptable and speech which is not. Or perhaps they feared that a government that can suppress unpopular speech for one reason might eventually suppress unfavorable speech for another. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]