Courts Fiddle as Porn Burns

A supreme Court decision this week failed to reconcile the right to free speech with a law aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography.

The high court essentially delayed a final ruling on whether the 1998 Child Online Protection Act meets constitutional muster by throwing the issue to a lower court.

This law would set criminal penalties for anyone who publishes sexual material "harmful to minors" on the Web. A federal appellate court had blocked the law from taking effect, saying its use of "contemporary community standards" as the criteria to determine what's harmful couldn't be applied to online material, which spans all communities.

Three Supreme Court justices voiced their own concerns about the law being "overly broad." Two others specifically suggested that a "national standard," not a community one, should apply on the Web. These five wanted more analysis from the lower court on the issue of assessing what types of Web offerings are harmful to children before ruling definitively.

Three justices saw nothing wrong with the "community standards" yardstick, but also wanted more analysis from below.

Congress has tried three times to curb online porn. Two attempts were struck down by the courts, and this third effort now awaits a verdict.

Curbs on pornography that either exploits children or could harm them long have been accepted as justifiable restrictions on free speech. Society's interest in protecting its young takes precedence. But that interest has to be balanced against adults' right to read or view what they choose.

Striking that balance is difficult on the Internet, with its boundless reach and unlimited material. Yet, with more and more youngsters going online, it's urgent that either a comprehensive technical solution be found, such as fool-proof software, or that Congress and the courts come to a legal resolution that finds a path through these competing interests.

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