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Supreme Court to review child porn law

The high court agrees to hear whether a law that cracks down on Internet content is legal, again jumping into the debate of children's safety vs. free-speech rights on the Web.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear whether a law that cracks down on Internet content is legal, again jumping into the debate of children's safety vs. free-speech rights on the Web.

This time around, the court will consider the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a law passed in 1998 that would have made it illegal for commercial sites to sell sexually explicit material to minors.

However, the law never took effect after several groups successfully challenged it on free-speech grounds. In the latest legal round last summer, an appeals court blocked it, siding with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others who argued that it would stifle Internet speech by outlawing online sites including museums and bookstores. Specifically, the court said the law would force all Web sites to comply with the moral standards of the strictest communities.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, seeking to revive the law.

The Supreme Court is increasingly becoming the final arbiter of cyberspace law, as new Web sites and ways of doing business online are testing the limits of free speech on the Internet. Four years ago, in its first cyberspace case, the court struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a sweeping bill that would have made it a felony to deliver indecent content to minors via the Web. Because such content is considered protected speech for adults, the Supreme Court overturned major portions of that bill. After that, the Web's moral watchdogs rallied behind COPA, which is also known as the "son of CDA."

The COPA hearing will mark the third time the Supreme Court considers constitutional issues surrounding free speech and Web content. In addition to hearing arguments about CDA and COPA, the court plans to weigh the constitutionality of another law, the Child Pornography Prevention Act. That law makes it illegal to possess digital images of people who "appear to be minors" engaging in sexual acts, even if the people are adults. Groups including the ACLU have argued the law could make criminals of people who own digital copies of movies such as "Romeo and Juliet." Supporters say it helps prevent the proliferation of child porn on the Web. Appeals courts across the country have so far been divided on the issue.

Taming the Web After the Supreme Court announced it would hear the COPA case, the ACLU said it is confident the court would take its side.

"We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate to the Court that Congress has once again fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Internet," ACLU attorney Ann Beeson said in a statement.

Beeson said the law would make criminals out of the Web sites considered by many to be benign. The group has argued the case on behalf of the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, art galleries, bookstores, a women's health site and writers of sexual advice columns, among others.