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Court plans CDA session

The Supreme Court will hold a conference tomorrow to discuss Reno vs. ACLU and may decide whether to hear the case or simply affirm a lower-court ruling.

The Supreme Court will hold a conference tomorrow to discuss Reno vs. ACLU and may decide whether to hear the case or simply affirm a Philadelphia federal court's decision and put the Communications Decency Act to rest, court officials told CNET today.

The government has appealed to the Supreme Court to reject a preliminary injunction imposed by the Philadelphia court against the decency act.

The court will tomorrow begin to consider whether it will review the government's case or uphold the Philadelphia decision, which barred government enforcement of certain provisions of the CDA.

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking for a motion of summary affirmance of the injunction. The government wants the court to examine the case but hasn't explicitly asked for the lower court's decision to be reversed.

The CDA came into being as Section 507 of the sweeping telecommunications reform legislation now known as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Clinton on February 8. Introduced by Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska), the CDA was a response to a groundswell of concern about pornographic and otherwise questionable content now accessible to virtually anyone with a computer, including minors, from the Web.

The law imposes penalties on anyone who knowingly "makes, creates, or solicits" and "initiates the transmission" of "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age." Those found guilty under the law could be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison and fined up to $250,000.

ACLU plaintiffs, who represent online users, content providers, Internet companies, and other organizations, filed suit against the CDA the same day the bill was signed on the grounds that the law violated free speech rights under the First Amendment.

A special panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia took extensive testimony from both sides during a hearing to decide whether to slap a preliminary injunction on the law, which the court did on June 13.

ACLU staff attorney Ann Beeson said today that she had anticipated an announcement from the court as early as next week but was surprised to hear that the conference was scheduled before Thanksgiving.

If the court decides to hear the case, it may announce the decision right away. If it decides to affirm the lower court's decision, it may hold several meetings before issuing an explanation of the decision.

"If they decide to accept the appeal, it doesn't take as long," Beeson said. "If they decide to summary-affirm, it will probably take longer."

If the court decides to hear the government's appeal, proceedings could start in late winter or early next spring.

The court is also expected to decide in early December whether it will combine the ACLU case with a separate suit filed against the CDA by Joseph Shea, editor of the American Reporter online newspaper.