June 25, 2007 | By Cindy Cohn

Ten Years After ACLU v. Reno: Free Speech Still Needs Defending

Join the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech CampaignOnline free speech faces many threats today, but the Internet's incredible abundance and variety of expression might never have blossomed to begin with if the first major court battle had gone the wrong way.

Tuesday marks the ten year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court?s landmark decision in Reno v. ACLU, which recognized that free speech on the Internet merits the highest standards of Constitutional protection. EFF participated as both plaintiff and co-counsel in the case, which successfully challenged the online censorship provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. The Court?s decision -- its first involving the Internet -- was issued on June 26, 1997.

The CDA fight was one of the first big rallying points for online freedom. When the law passed, thousands of websites turned their backgrounds black in protest. EFF launched its "blue ribbon" campaign and millions of websites around the world joined in support of free speech online. Even today, you can find the blue ribbon throughout the Web.

EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel, who served as co-counsel in the case, notes: "The Reno decision defined the First Amendment for the 21st century. The Court wrote on a clean slate and established the fundamental principles that govern free speech issues in the electronic age."

EFF?s work over the past ten years demonstrates that while the technology might evolve, threats to online expression persist and core First Amendment principles must be vigilantly defended. The CDA was a crystal clear case of unconstitutional government censorship, and the challenges today are sometimes more complex. EFF's efforts today include:

  • Intermediaries: EFF fights to protect Internet middlemen -- like hosting services, search engines, and ISPs -- from overreaching liability, so that creators of amazing free speech tools don't have to worry about being held responsible for everything that Internet users say.
  • "Fair Use": EFF defends ?fair use? of copyrighted material, including its ongoing campaign to counter bogus copyright takedowns on YouTube and elsewhere;
  • Bloggers' Rights: EFF promotes bloggers? rights through litigation and distribution of a comprehensive legal guide.
  • Anonymous speech: EFF supports online anonymity, primarily through representation of defendants in "John Doe" lawsuits filed by large corporations and thin-skinned public officials who want to intimidate their anonymous critics.
  • "Right to Know": EFF uses the Freedom of Information Act to promote the public?s "right to know" and facilitate informed and open debate on technology and civil liberties issues.

The fight against direct government censorship of online speech continues, too. EFF continues to participate in the pending litigation against the Children?s Online Protection Act (COPA), a slightly narrower but still gravely dangerous version of the CDA that the Supreme Court has twice enjoined.

While it can sometimes seem that there are more fronts than ever in the fight for free speech online, the battles we face today would be much, much harder without that first victory in Reno v. ACLU. With your help, we'll fight to make sure that ten years from now, we can look back and see how today?s battles helped pave the way for an even better future online.


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