COPA Falls Again; Is Historic 3rd Trip to Supremes Coming?

by on July 24, 2008 · 13 comments

Another chapter in the seemingly never-ending saga of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 was written this week when the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling striking down COPA, which would require Web operators to restrict access to large amounts of online speech and expression. [The Third Circuit's full decision is here. And I penned a 3-part series on the lower court ruling by Judge Lowell Reed Jr., senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, here, here, and here].

The DOJ will likely appeal the decision, yet again, to the Supreme Court. I can’t be certain, but I know of no other free speech-related law that has made THREE trips to the Supreme Court for review. (If readers know of any laws that can match that record, please let me know). It really is quite amazing, and even a little outrageous, when you think about it. After all, just think of all the time, energy and money that has gone into this 10-year legal fiasco. I know it is the DOJ’s job to defend congressional enactments before the courts, but how might we have spent that time and money if all this litigating wasn’t going on?? Regulation always has opportunity costs and in this case those costs have been 10 years of wrangling among lawyers. Those resources could have been used to educate parents and kids about online safety; to create and disseminate more and better private screening tools; and so on. Alas, we instead have mounds of paper piling up in the courts and millions being spent with nothing to show for it.

Anyway, Declan has an excellent summary of the 3rd Circuit’s ruling here, and my friends at CDT have a statement here. But Susan Crawford has the best analysis of the decision in her essay on “Understanding COPA’s Journey.” She begins by summarizing the key findings:

The Third Circuit yesterday announced a host of reasons why COPA is insufficiently narrowly tailored, many based on the terms of the statute. The coverage of the HTM ["harm to minors"] definition is vague, the court felt, and so publishers won’t be able to tell in advance whether their operations are all subject to the COPA constraint (what if only a tiny portion of a web site has arguably HTM material on it?) or what fits within the HTM definition (are you supposed to be protecting 3 year-olds as well as 16 year-olds?).

The court also found that having to implement credit card, debit account etc. shields would burden the providers of free web sites whose operations are nonetheless “commercial” and so covered by COPA. This was another instance of insufficient tailoring. But the key element here is that the Third Circuit held that the government had to carry the burden of showing that filters were less effective than COPA, and it failed to do that. In fact, it appears that filters are both less restrictive and more effective than the operation of the statute, based on extensive findings of fact by the district court below.

So, what will the Supreme Court say about that argument when COPA makes its unprecedented 3rd appearance before the judges? Susan says:

This approach may be difficult for the current Supreme Court to agree with. It was difficult enough the last time. The analytical framework adopted by the Third Circuit follows what Justice Kennedy said then – that it is the Court’s job to consider what alternatives are out there in the world to help parents, and to decide whether they’re more effective/less restrictive than COPA.

The point, Justice Kennedy said, is to is ‘‘to ensure that speech is restricted no further than necessary,’’ not to consider ‘‘whether the challenged restriction has some effect in achieving Congress’ goal, regardless of the restriction it imposes.’’ So the court’s job is not to ask whether COPA would provide government with another tool to address harmful speech in the name of protecting kids. That standard would justify any restriction on speech. Instead, the inquiry should be ‘‘whether the challenged regulation is the least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.’’ Right now, filters are more effective and less restrictive than COPA (or, at least, the government didn’t prove that they weren’t), and so the government loses. Never mind that filters are voluntary and that a lot of parents choose not to use them – that’s the parents’ choice. Filters are available.

The government’s argument to the Third Circuit, and probably to the Supreme Court, will be that this is a maddeningly flawed analytical approach. The government would like to see a more protective, quasi-parental approach (on the assumption that parents are busy shoring up the failing economy and can’t be counted on to be watching their kids or caring what they see).

Justice Breyer was very sympathetic to that view the last time around. His point is that filtering doesn’t count as an alternative to COPA. (‘‘The presence of filtering software is not an alternative legislative approach to the problem of protecting children.”) Doing nothing, legislatively, will always be less restrictive than doing something. He also thinks COPA isn’t much stronger than the Miller obscenity test and would only modestly burden adult access to legal adult speech.

Veteran SCT-watchers will count noses, in this case as in Fox v. FCC, and try to figure out what will happen next. Last time around, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Stevens, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, all of whom are still there. Justice Stevens wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Scalia filed a dissent, as did Justice Breyer, who was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist (now Roberts) and Justice O’Connor (now Alito). So maybe the 5-4 will stay in place. But if Thomas goes over to the dissenting side, and Justice Breyer’s analytic approach (”what do you mean, filtering is an alternative?”) gathers steam, COPA could survive its third trip to the SCT and be upheld.

So, it remains to be seen whether the third time is the charm for the DOJ and they are able to finally convince the Supreme Court to enforce COPA. And Susan is right in noting that all eyes will be on the decision in Fox v. FCC since that will be the next major free speech case before the Court.

As Susan rightly concludes: “This case is a big deal because it turns on the question whether private, edge-based solutions to speech issues should be taken seriously. I think they can, and I don’t want to see a lot of government tinkering with the sources of speech…. Let’s hope the government drops the COPA effort, which has now stretched on for almost ten years.”

Indeed.

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