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Georgia challenge progresses

Another case involving free speech online moves forward, this one in Georgia.

As the Supreme Court met to consider the Communications Decency Act last week, another case involving free speech in cyberspace quietly progressed through the legal mill.

Last Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups filed their final brief arguing for a preliminary injunction against the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act. The ACLU also filed a response to the state's motion to dismiss the case.

The state law, which took effect July 1, makes it illegal to falsely identify oneself, to place a registered trademark or logo on a home page without permission, or to claim someone else's identity when sending email. Violators could face up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines.

The law was written to protect consumers from being misled by false advertising or online impersonators. The lawsuit challenging it, originally filed September 24, is being led by the ACLU, Atlanta attorney Scott McClain, Georgia state Rep. Mitchell Kaye (R-Marietta), and 14 individuals and groups who provide Web sites with information on issues including AIDS, gay and lesbian rights, and the separation of church and state.

Both sides are arguing over how to define the law and its potential violators.

The groups fighting for an injunction say that the law is vague and that its prohibition of anonymous communication over the Net violates free speech, especially that of controversial groups.

The defendants, on the other hand, state in their opposition brief that the law does not apply to pseudonyms, computer names, or anonymous communication, as well as to mere links between the Internet sites.

The state filed a motion to dismiss the case on November 7, contending that the plaintiffs "lacked standing"--meaning that they are not threatened by prosecution under the law. The plaintiffs argued that because they use or seek to use computer networks for protected online communications, they could indeed be prosecuted.

David Runnion, attorney for the state, said his office is reviewing the ACLU's response to the motion to dismiss and has ten business days from last Tuesday to respond.

As of yet, no one has been prosecuted under the law, said Scott McClain, co-counsel with the ACLU. But he said the statute should be deemed unconstitutional because its provisions are unclear.

"The law doesn't say it's only for the purposes of committing fraud," he said. McClain said he expects a ruling on the injunction by January.