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Court rejects Net law in Virginia

A federal judge strikes down a Virginia law governing Internet usage, saying it disregarded First Amendment protections.

A federal judge has struck down a Virginia law governing Internet usage, saying the state disregarded the First Amendment when it banned public employees from downloading "sexually explicit" material using state computers.

In its latest victory against online restriction, the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday won its challenge against the law, which was enacted in July 1996 to keep state-funded computers and Net connections free of sexual material.

"We are basically thrilled. We think it marks a decision for free speech on the Net, 100,000 state employees, and the general public," ACLU staff attorney Marjorie Heins said today. The ACLU brought the case on behalf of six college professors who charged that the law denied their right to seek, post, print, or store sexual information--material that could include topics such as AIDS, human sexuality, popular culture, art, or poetry.

Judge Leonie Brinkema of the eastern district of Virginia found that the term "sexually explicit" was too broad and could include areas protected by the First Amendment. The judge also said the criminal statute was unnecessary because the state already has content-neutral laws in place that prohibit using a computer for activities that aren't related to work.

The dispute over the law began when plaintiff Paul Smith, a professor of English and cultural studies at George Mason University, was told to remove five nude pictures from his Web site as part of an assignment on censorship in a popular culture course he taught that examines the media's depiction of gender and sexuality.

The photos fell under the state's definition of "sexually explicit," which prohibits obtaining or displaying images "showing the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering or any portion thereof below the top of the nipple."

The other professors named in the case were not asked to stop their online practices but still felt threatened by the law. Terry Meyers, a professor and chair of the English department at the College of William & Mary, cited his study of 19th century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne saying Swinburne's work is too provocative to slip by Virginia's law.

Professors named in the case also teach history, contemporary American literature, and psychology. Brian Delaney and Bernard Levin of Blue Ridge Community College, Dana Heller of Old Dominion University, and Melvin Urofsky of Commonwealth University were also named in the case.

Brinkema's ruling falls in line with other federal decisions that overturned laws regulating Net content or online activity.

Last June, the Supreme Court rejected the federal Communications Decency Act, saying that it ran counter to the First Amendment by making it a felony to send or display "indecent" material that could be obtained by minors on the Net.

In the same month, a federal judge threw out a New York state version of the law on grounds that it violated the Constitution's interstate commerce clause. That provision forbids one state from regulating another's commercial activity.

The triple-header for the ACLU was completed last year by a ruling in Georgia, in which a district judge overturned a law that forbade anonymous and pseudonymous online speech, as well as the use of trademarked logos without permission. The ruling stated that the Georgia law was vague and overly restrictive.

But the war isn't over for the ACLU yet. Tomorrow, it will be back in the legal saddle again, asking a federal court to declare that screening Net sites at public libraries infringes on patrons' rights to download constitutionally protected speech, including controversial news stories.

The civil liberties group is joining a court fight already under way in Loudoun County, Virginia, where the public library system has been sued by the People for the American Way for installing blocking software on every computer with a Net connection. The software is part of an effort to bar access to sites deemed pornographic or harmful to minors.