The court said the restrictions imposed by Congress and supposedly aimed at preventing children from gaining access to pornographic and obscene materials were not narrowly tailored and in fact were so broad as to significantly affect the rights of adults to obtain information. Further it said that it was unlikely that children could accidentally access obscene material.
"We have ... found that there is no effective way for many Internet content providers to limit the effective reach of the [law] to adults because there is no realistic way for many providers to ascertain the age of those accessing their materials," wrote Judge Dolores Sloviter, chief judge of the 3rd District Court of Appeals, in arguments seconded by other judges in concurring opinions. "As a consequence we have found that `[m]any speakers who display arguable indecent content on the Internet must choose between silence and the risk of prosecution.' Such a choice ... strikes at the heart of speech of adults as well as minors."
The court also said procedures required to review information suggested by the law for decency would be a costly burden on libraries and other providers that would hamper communication and prevent free speech.
While the Justice Department said it was reviewing the decision and still believed the law could applied in a constitutional manner, Internet groups, software and media companies as well as some privacy groups quickly praised the decision.
"This is a great victory for anyone who cares about freedom of expression," said Microsoft Corp. Chairman-CEO Bill Gates.
Others claimed the decision was a blow to the religious right, which had used the child angle to try to affect rights of all Americans and said the decision would make it very hard for Congress to limit the Internet.
Congress expected a challenge of the law and provided a fast track appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a lower court decision. If as expected the Justice Department appeals, the case could be heard as soon as this fall.
Lawyers for a coalition that had challenged the law said that if the Supreme Court upheld the decision, the Internet will enjoy First Amendment protection broader than that of print media. Several said the decision lifts the only remaining obstacle to the Internet becoming a major commercial medium as well.
U.S. Sen. Jim Exon, D-Neb., sponsor of the legislation, on Wednesday said he had always believed the act would get a more thorough hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court. "Hopefully, reason and common sense will prevail in the Supreme Court, he said.
The text of the judges' decision can be found at http://www.cdt.org/cicc.