WASHINGTON — In a major step towards regulating the untamed world of the Internet, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday that a federal law aimed at keeping some smut out of e-mails does not violate free-speech rights.
The decision, issued without an opinion, rejected a computer technology company's claim that part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 threatens its free-speech rights.
At issue was a provision in the law making it a crime to transmit a "communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent with intent to annoy, abuse, threat, or harass another person."
That provision was attacked by ApolloMedia Corp., a San Francisco-based firm that developed the "annoy.com" Web site to let people anonymously communicate their opinions to public officials by using language some might consider indecent.
While the company's 1997 lawsuit was pending, the Supreme Court invalidated another provision of the Communications Decency Act. The justices struck down Congress's effort to protect children from sexually explicit - but not legally obscene - material.
The invalidated provision made it a crime to send "obscene or indecent" material on the Internet knowing it could be seen by those under age 18.
In ApolloMedia's case, a three-judge federal court in California upheld the challenged provision by interpreting it to apply only to obscene material, which gets no protection from the Constitution's First Amendment.
When that court announced its decision last September, ApolloMedia president Clinton Fein said he was pleased that "it is constitutionally protected to send indecent communications with an intent to annoy."
But his lawyer, William Bennett Turner, worried aloud that the judges failed to make clear whether it was legal to "outlaw indecent speech online."
The 1996 law requires that challenges to any of its provisions be heard by three-judge trial courts and that appeals be taken directly to the Supreme Court.
At stake is the right of "all Internet users not to have to live under the uncertain cloud of a statute that on its face makes an indecent communication a felony," the appeal said.
But Clinton administration lawyers urged the justices to reject the appeal. "Whatever fear of prosecution [ApolloMedia] might have had at the outset of the case became entirely remote, speculative and, conjectural after the district court's ruling," they said.