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Supreme Court rules in favor of ClariNet in landmark case, protecting Internet free speech

US Supreme Court Finds The Communications Decency Act Unconstitutional

News Bulletin! Thursday, June 26, 1997 
The United States Supreme Court in Reno vs. ACLU ruled that the Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional, thus protecting free speech rights on the Internet.  The nation's highest court heard oral arguments on the case earlier this year. 

Decision Graphic

ClariNet joined several other electronic publishing companies and organizations in a suit against the U.S. Attorney General to have the "Communications Decency Act" declared unconstitutional. This so-called "Exon bill" was passed as an amendment to the Telecom bill President Clinton signed February 8, 1996. 

The American Civil Liberties Union spearheaded and funded this case. ClariNet joined with the ACLU, the EFF and several others as plaintiffs in this case because we felt the law would unfairly affect and chill our electronic publishing efforts, and because we feel the law violates the 1st amendment of the U.S. constitution. 

Here is the text of the complaint

As newspaper publishers we are strong supporters of full freedom of expression. ClariNet has always felt that we should not "protect" our readers from possibly offensive or "indecent" material. Our job is to deliver the news to you. We sometimes even run stories that ordinary print newspapers won't run in the USA because their content might be offensive. We believe our readers are educated and intelligent and able to make their own decisions about what to read. We also believe that children should be able to read our news -- and that it is up to their parents to control their access and educate them about how to deal with material those parents feel is inappropriate. 

We were particularly distressed by this bill for several reasons. Not only are we against censorship, we are particularly frightened by the suggestion that the electronic press should be subject to restrictions that would never be allowed or accepted on or by the paper press. This law forbids allowing "indecent" material from reaching minors, but such a restriction has been proven time and time again to be unconstitutional when applied to publishers of paper books and newspapers. 

We fear this sort of law because it declares the electronic press to be second class press, not protected by the full strength of the 1st Amendment. The government was able to restrict radio and TV stations, denying them that protection, under the argument that they used the scarce resource of electromagnetic spectrum, and thus were subject to licensing by the FCC. No such argument applies here. 

The digital press is growing. All major newspapers now have online versions as well, or plan them. Many feel that the online newspapers will supplant the paper versions in the decades to come, and the digital press will be "the press" as far as the USA is concerned. Laws like this one would leave the USA without a mainstream medium that is protected fully by the 1st amendment. We must stop efforts to curtail our freedom of speech before it's too late. 

Other Information

What ClariNet Publishes

For historical reasons, in addition to ClariNews, ClariNet also publishes the net's most widely read free material, the USENET newsgroup rec.humor.funny. (Visit the RHF Home Page.) While RHF is not part of ClariNet's paid-subscription electronic newspaper service, ClariNet sponsors its operation and provides the facilities for its publication and its web server. This moderated publication, dedicated to jokes of all types, sometimes publishes "dirty jokes," which may meet the definition of "indecent" applied in this new law. To remove all "indecent" jokes would destroy the newsgroup. Since USENET distribution is entirely outside our control, we have no power over whether minors can get access to dirty jokes. 

This law would require all open facilities on USENET to either install and use draconian access controls to stop access by minors, or to "dumb down" to a level acceptable for children. Open adult discourse would be destroyed. 

The Suit

You will also find details on the home pages of the ACLU, the EFF and other parties participating in the suit. You should also support the EFF's Blue Ribbon campaign for free expression online. 
  • We encourage you to contribute to the ACLU and other public organizations supporting this effort. ClariNet, in addition to being a plaintiff, is making a donation to the ACLU to support them in this effort, but our donation will cover but a tiny fraction of the cost of doing this work. Your help is needed as well. 
  • - Brad Templeton, Publisher 

    (Templeton was owner and Publisher at ClariNet during the suit.)

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