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Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union

Citation. 521 U.S. 844 (1997)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The statutes at issue was enacted to prohibit knowing transmission or displaying of obscene, indecent and or offensive messages to any recipient under 19 years of age online. The respondent challenged the statutes on the ground that they violate the First Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Government may not reduce the adult population to only what is fit for children.


The Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits the knowing transmission of obscene or indecent messages to any recipient under 19 years of age. It also prohibits the knowing sending or displaying of patently offensive messages in a manner that is available to a person under 18 years of age. The breadth of these prohibitions is qualified by two affirmative defenses. One covers those who take good faith, reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions to restrict access by minors to the prohibited communications. The other covers those who restrict access to covered material by requiring certain designated forms of age proof, such as a verified credit card or an adult identification number or code.


Do the statutes enacted to protect minors from indecent and patently offensive communications on the Internet violate the Constitution?


Yes, notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, the statute abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the two statutes at issue infringes the First Amendment rights of individuals.


Regardless of whether the statutes are so vague that they violate the Constitution, the many ambiguities concerning the scope of their coverage make it problematic for purposes of the First Amendment. For instance, the statutes use a different linguistic form. First uses the word indecent, while the second speaks of material that depicts or describes in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs. Given the absence of a definition of either term, this difference in language will provoke uncertainty among speakers about how the two standards relate to each other and just what they mean. This uncertainty undermines the likelihood that the statutes have been carefully tailored to the congressional goal of protecting minors from potentially harmful materials. The vagueness of the statutes is a matter of special concern for two reasons. First, the statute is a content-based regulation of speech and it also is a criminal statute. Thus, they must be specific yet failed to provide a clear guideline. Therefore, the statutes are unconstitutional.

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