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Free Expression

A Look Back at the First Big Fight for Free Expression on the Internet

by CDT Staff

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of Reno v. ACLU, the path-breaking case in which the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the Communications Decency Act and cleared the way for the modern internet. The CDA would have required website operators to restrict minors’ access to “indecent” and “patently offensive” material on the web; the Court found that, in doing so, it “unquestionably [would have] silence[d] some speakers whose messages would be entitled to constitutional protection.”

The Center for Democracy & Technology was part of a broad coalition fighting back against the CDA when it was a draft bill and challenging it in court. Today, we take a look back at the fiery public debate that went on as the case made its way to the Supreme Court, and how lawmakers and corporations alike had a stake in this landmark case declaring that speech on the internet was protected under the First Amendment. (And see below for our round-up of other posts on the Reno anniversary from across the web.)

Jerry Berman and Mariam Bell

In the lead-up to the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in Reno, advocates and critics for the CDA debated whether the law actually provided effective protections for children on the internet. In this clip from C-SPAN, CDT founder Jerry Berman and Mariam Bell, vice president of Enough is Enough, describe the parties lined up on both sides. Full clip here.

Lawrence Lessig and Mark Rasch

As excitement around the pending case built, lawyers tried out arguments for and against the CDA in a moot court format. In this clip from C-SPAN, Lawrence Lessig, then a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, directs a series of pointed questions at Mark Rasch, playing the role of the American Civil Liberties Union. Full clip here.

Representative Zoe Lofgren

Here, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.) speaks with reporters after observing oral arguments before the Court, discussing the Justices’ questions, which, for the first time, probed the relationship between internet technology and the First Amendment. Full clip here.

Senator Patrick Leahy

After the Supreme Court ruled in Reno, Sen. Patrick Leahy embraced the decision, praising it as a “landmark in the history of the internet.” Full clip here.

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