WASHINGTON -- In its first free-speech ruling for the computer age, the Supreme Court said Thursday that a congressional attempt to keep pornography off the Internet violated the Constitution's First Amendment.
The government cannot limit adults to seeing "only what is fit for children", the justices said.
Congress' 1996 legislation would have made it a crime to put "indecent" or "patently offensive" words or pictures online where they could be found by children. Violators could have been sentenced to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The law was challenged by many groups, including civil libertarians, computer companies and librarians. Attorney Bruce Ennis, who argued the case for those groups, called the court's 7-2 ruling "the legal birth certificate for the Internet". Computer and civil liberties groups hailed the ruling as extending free-speech protections toward the 21st century.
But backers of the law complained the court's action leaves children vulnerable to lewd words and pictures easily obtained online.
The court's vote affirmed a Pennsylvania court ruling that struck down the 1996 law. Even the two dissenting justices agreed that parts of the measure improperly restricted communication among adults.
Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens noted an earlier ruling said a restriction on speech "amounted to burning the house to roast the pig". He said the attempt by Congress to keep certain material off the computer network, "casting a far darker shadow over free speech, threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community".
He added that the government's interest in keeping children away from harmful materials "does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults".
Supporters of the law said the ruling would harm parents' efforts to protect their children.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who sponsored the law, said the justices are "telling parents to abandon any hope of a decent public culture". Christian Coalition president Donald Hodel said the ruling "leaves millions of children vulnerable to exploitation by pornographers".
The White House said President Clinton will meet with industry leaders, parents and teachers next month in search of a solution "as powerful for the computer as the v-chip will be for the television and that protects children in ways that are consistent with America's free-speech values".
On the other side, Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project said, "Congress must let the Internet grow, not strangle it. The framers of the Constitution wrote the First Amendment with quill pens on parchment, but their words have no less meaning on a video monitor".
The ruling was the high court's first decision involving the rapidly expanding global computer network, which is thought to connect about 40 million people using more than 9.4 million computers worldwide.
Internet users can use e-mail to communicate with other individuals, join "chat rooms", send messages to automatic mailing lists and "surf" the World Wide Web for information stored in other computers.
Stevens said that through chat rooms, "any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox".
His opinion was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agreed that the law was unconstitutional in that it would restrict adults' communications with other adults. But O'Connor wrote for the two that the law did not interfere with minors' free-speech rights.
The law would have allowed sexually oriented material to be put online only if access were limited to people using credit cards or adult-access codes. But Stevens said such systems were prohibitively expensive.