It was the first attempt to regulate
pornographic material on the Internet
by the U.S. Congress.
In 1995 it was introduced to the
Senate Committee of Commerce,
Science, and Transportation by Senators
James Exon and Slade Gorton and was
added June 14, 1995.
It was Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The amendment that became the CDA
was added to the Telecommunications
Act in the Senate by an 84–16 vote on
June 14, 1995.
It affected the Internet and online
communications in two significant ways.
-First, it attempted to regulate both indecency
(when available to children) and obscenity in
-Second, Section 230 of the Act, declared that
operators of Internet services were not to be
construed as publishers.
The relevant sections of the Act
were introduced in response to fears that
Internet pornography was on the rise.
Indecency in TV and radio broadcasting had
already been regulated by the Federal
Communications Commission—broadcasting of
offensive speech was restricted to certain
hours of the day, when minors were
supposedly least likely to be exposed.
Passed by Congress on February 1, 1996, and
signed by President Bill Clinton on February 8,
1996, the CDA imposed criminal sanctions on
knowingly (A) uses an interactive computer
service to send to a specific person or persons
under 18 years of age, or (B) uses any
interactive computer service to display in a
manner available to a person under 18 years
Section 230It added protection for online service
providers and users from actions against them
based on the content of third parties, stating in
part that "No provider or user of an interactive
computer service shall be treated as the
publisher or speaker of any information provided
by another information content provider".
Effectively, this section immunizes both ISPs and
Internet users from liability for torts committed
by others using their website or online forum,
even if the provider fails to take action after
receiving actual notice of the harmful or
In 1997, a group of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU), challenged the “indecent transmission” and “patently
offensive display” provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
These provisions made it a crime to send offensive Internet material to
persons under age eighteen. The district court found for the ACLU. On
behalf of the Federal Government, Attorney General Janet Reno appealed
to the Supreme Court.
The Court's Decision
The Supreme Court invalidated both provisions of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of
1996, because they violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. Justice
John Paul Stevens wrote an opinion in which six other justices joined fully.
Justice Stevens reviewed the operation of the Internet and the difficulty of verifying the age of
an Internet user. Justice Stevens pointed out several problems with the act: It did not define
“indecent,” it did not allow parents to authorize their children to access restricted materials, it
applied “to the entire universe of cyberspace” rather than to well-defined areas.
Moreover, the Internet is not a “scarce” commodity like the airwaves, so there is less
justification for governmental regulation. Finally, the regulated materials do not just appear
on the computer screen, but must be actively sought out.
Justice O'Connor concurred in part and dissented in part. She made an analogy to zoning
law: “I view the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) as little more than an attempt
by Congress to create 'adult zones' on the Internet. Our precedent indicates that the
creation of such zones can be constitutionally sound.” However, she agreed with the
majority that the particular restrictions imposed by the CDA went beyond the permissible
scope of legitimate zoning regulation and therefore joined the majority in finding the law