The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, violates the First Amendment.
Although a specific date has not been set, the justices will hear the case during the current session, which runs through April, a court official said today. The case is not likely not be heard before February, the official added.
The CDA was contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a gargantuan overhaul of federal telecommunication regulations passed earlier this year. The portion under dispute outlaws distribution of indecent or "patently offensive" material to minors over the Internet.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Libraries Association and a coalition of companies and organizations filed suit over the act the day it was signed.
In June, a three-judge panel in Philadelphia ruled the act unconstitutional, saying that the law "will have a chilling effect on free expression."
"Subjecting speakers to criminal penalties for speech that is constitutionally protected in itself raises the specter of irreparable harm," Chief Judge Dolores Sloviter wrote in her opinion. The "bottom line is that the First Amendment should not be interpreted to require us to entrust the protection it affords to the judgment of prosecutors."
The judges held that the Internet deserves protection under the First Amendment akin to newspapers and other print media, as opposed to television, which is much more tightly regulated by the government.
In his opinion, District Judge Stewart Dalzell said the Internet "may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The government may not, through the Communications Decency Act, interrupt that conversation.
"The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green or the mails," Judge Dalzell continued, "and as the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion."
Another panel of judges in a separate case in New York also found the law unconstitutional.
Shortly after the Philadelphia decision, the government announced it would appeal the rulings. The Supreme Court could have let the lower courts' ruling stand, but decided instead to hear the case itself.
"Obviously, this is such an important opinion that they have decided to give it a full review, [and] it's my hope that they will decide with all of the judges who have heard this and concluded that the law was unconstitutional," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. "Is there a possibility there will be a reversal? One can't rule it out. But am I concerned? No. This law is astonishingly beyond the power of what the Constitution grants Congress."