The Supreme Court blocked a law meant to shield Web-surfing children from dirty pictures and online come-ons, ruling Tuesday that the law also would cramp the free speech rights of adults to see and buy what they want on the Internet.
Technology such as filtering software may better protect children from unsavory material than such laws, the court said in a 5-4 ruling.
"Filters are less restrictive" and thus pose less risk of muzzling free speech, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. "They impose selective restrictions on speech at the receiving end, not universal restrictions at the source."
Numerous software companies market products that parents can install on a home computer to sift out objectionable material. Filtering software tries to block Web sites based on preferences set by the user.
The 1998 law, signed by then-President Clinton and backed by the Bush administration, would require adults to use access codes or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online, and it would punish violators with fines up to $50,000 or jail time.
It has been on hold during the court challenge on behalf of artists, bookstores, an online sex therapist, a gynecological information site and others. The American Civil Liberties Union argued the law could make criminals out of anyone who offered racy or explicit material to adults.
The ruling in Ashcroft v. ACLU was the last of nearly 80 cases decided in a busy court term that ended Tuesday. The year's marquee cases involving presidential power to deal with terror suspects were announced Monday, and for the most part represented a setback for the Bush administration.
In Tuesday's pornography ruling, the court majority said that the federal judge who initially blocked the Child Online Protection Act six years ago rightly found that the law was probably unconstitutional.
"There is a potential for extraordinary harm and a serious chill upon protected speech" if the law takes effect, Kennedy wrote. He was joined by justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas.
In dissent, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer said the law should be upheld.
The high court tossed the case back to lower courts in Philadelphia, but the next step was not immediately clear. If the government chooses to defend the law, known by the acronym COPA, a trial could provide fresher information than was available to the Supreme Court, Kennedy said.
"The factual record does not reflect current technological reality — a serious flaw in any case involving the Internet," he wrote.
Material that is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment. Adults may see or purchase it, but children may not. That is a tricky rule to enforce in the world of the Internet.
Most Web sites, chat rooms and other Internet venues are available to adults and minors alike.
Congress has tried repeatedly to find a way to shield youngsters from the Web's dark side without running afoul of the First Amendment.
The justices unanimously struck down the first version of a child-protection law passed in 1996, just as the Internet was becoming a common means of communication, research and entertainment.
Congress responded by passing COPA, saying the new law was tailored to go after pornographers or others who place material deemed harmful to minors within their easy reach.
Although free speech advocates had hoped the court would strike down the law outright, they said they were pleased with Tuesday's ruling.
"The status quo is still with us," ACLU lawyer Ann Beeson said. "The court made it safe for artists, sex educators and Web publishers to communicate with adults without risking jail time."
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo denounced the ruling.
"Our society has reached a broad consensus that child obscenity is harmful to our youngest generation and must be stopped," Corallo said. "Congress has repeatedly attempted to address this serious need and the court yet again opposed these commonsense measures to protect America's children."
The case is Ashcroft v. ACLU, 03-218.
On the Net:
Ruling in Ashcroft v. ACLU: http://wid.ap.org/documents/scotus/040629ashcroft.pdf