Supreme Court Cases

521 U.S. 844 (1997)

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Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether the provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that prohibit the transmission of indecent and patently offensive materials to minors over the Internet violate the First Amendment.


Affirmed (includes modified). Petitioning party did not receive a favorable disposition.


The Communications Decency Act of 1996 ("CDA"), 47 U.S.C. § 223, prohibits the transmission of indecent and patently offensive materials to minors over the Internet. A number of civil rights and computer groups challenged the constitutionality of these provisions on First Amendment grounds. In essence, these groups argued that the inability of Internet users and providers to verify the age of information recipients effectively prevented them from engaging in indecent speech, which traditionally has received significant First Amendment protection. After a lengthy evidentiary hearing that included many online demonstrations, a special three-judge district court (which was created by the CDA to hear the expected constitutional challenges) agreed with the groups and ruled that the provisions violated the First Amendment.

Indecent speech, unlike obscenity, is entitled to constitutional protection because it often has substantial social value and lacks prurient interest. Sable Communications v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989). This speech therefore cannot be regulated unless the restrictions are justified by a compelling governmental interest and are narrowly tailored to advance that interest. Turner Broadcasting System v. FCC, 114 S. Ct. 2445 (1994). The Court already has held that the government has a compelling interest in protecting minors from indecent speech. Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 (1968). The Court also has held that the government may prohibit dissemination of indecent materials to minors as long it does not at the same time prohibit dissemination to adults. FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).

Importance of Case

The Court first held that indecent speech on the Internet is entitled to the same full First Amendment protection as other indecent speech. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed several important First Amendment principles. This reaffirmation is especially significant in a case in which the speech at issue is both unpopular and accessible to minors. The Court, relying on the evidence that Internet information providers can neither know the age of persons receiving their material nor effectively prohibit minors from viewing it, then held that the provisions of the CDA were vague and overbroad. The Court was especially concerned that the CDA, in denying minors access to indecent speech, effectively suppressed a large amount of information that adults had a constitutional right to receive. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O'Connor argued that while the majority of the provisions at issue were unconstitutional, the Court should have upheld those provisions that prohibited persons from directly transmitting indecent materials to persons they knew were minors.

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