Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union

07.12.2015 |

Episode #10 of the course “Trials that shaped the modern world”


With the invention of the internet in the early 1990s, a new media without regulation was born. The early web became a fast distribution method for every type of content and material, including pornographic images, videos, and text, which easily made their way into children’s hands. In the first attempt to regulate this new media, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The Act resulted in censorship of the materials (and unintended non-pornographic content) from adults. The ACLU sued, stating that the Act was in violation of the First Amendment protections of free speech and press. Janet Reno, the US Attorney General, prosecuted the case.

Janet Reno, First Female U.S. Attorney General

Janet Reno, first female U.S. Attorney General

As a new form of publication and media, the internet was treated both similarly and differently than other media. The Supreme Court looked to previous rulings on sanctions and regulations of other pornographic or “indecent” material distribution, including print, film, TV or radio broadcast, and personal communications. Weighing variables such as current and emerging technology, the unanimous decision (9-0) was partially dissented by two Supreme Court Justices. The dissenters argued that while free speech for adults must be protected, children also deserve protection from adult materials. They reasoned that separate adult and children’s zones of the internet, protected by “gateway” technology, would be best, if such a thing could be achieved.

The ruling of this case set the groundwork for the US Court and Constitution’s relationship with the internet’s distribution of information and speech. Recent court cases and events continue to redefine those relationships as the internet changes and the content on it is updated, but legal proceedings protect the First Amendment rights of the Internet as paramount.


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“Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” by Michael J. Sandel


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