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ACLU Net litigator dies at 52

Stefan Presser, head of the ACLU's Pennsylvania affiliate, fought for free speech and privacy rights on the Internet.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
Stefan Presser, a civil-liberties attorney who fought some of the most important Internet free-speech cases, died Friday. He was 52.

From 1985 to 2004, Presser was the legal director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued to challenge the Communications Decency Act nine years ago.

Credit: Declan McCullagh
Stefan Presser,
former legal director,
ACLU of Pennsylvania

In remarks outside the courtroom in 1996, Presser said, "We had a couple of things we wanted to prove, and we're pretty confident we were successful. The first is how different communication is on the Net vs. communication via radio or TV (which must abide by "indecency" restrictions)."

He was right. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the law's criminal sanctions that punished the availability of "indecent" material online.

Presser died of brain cancer, according to the ACLU. He was born in New York City and taught at Temple University's James E. Beasley School of Law.

After the Supreme Court rejected Congress' initial attempt to restrict free speech on the Internet, President Clinton signed the Child Online Protection Act. It was not as broad, applying only to commercial Web site operators--but it threatened them with six-month prison sentences if they made material deemed "harmful to minors" publicly available.

Presser joined the ACLU's challenge to that law. It resulted in the Supreme Court ruling last June that prosecutors would be barred from enforcing COPA until a full trial could take place.

He also participated in the ACLU's unsuccessful effort to overturn the Children" s="" Internet="" Protection="" Act<="" news:link="">--a federal law that attempts to compel libraries to install blocking software--and a victory against a Pennsylvania law that required Internet service providers to block allegedly illegal material. Presser also sued the Transportation Security Administration on behalf of a college student whose name appeared on the government's secret watch list.

"Although Stefan would have been the first to disclaim a deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Internet, he played an instrumental part in Internet free-speech cases for as long as there have been such cases," John Morris, a lawyer at the Center for Democracy and Technology who was co-counsel with Presser on a Net-blocking case, said in an e-mail message.