For Schools

High School Students
Teaching About Freedom of Speech on the Internet

Legal Background Handout

 Summaries of some key cases and legal materials are set out below for use in the proposed activity. The ABA’s Youth Summit site on Freedom of Speech and the Internet— http://www.abanet.org/publiced/youth/spring00main.html—has a wealth of other information, including other First Amendment cases, positions of interest groups, and other lessons. If time permits, it’s a good idea to read key cases in their entirety for preparation and select key passages to photocopy and share with the students when the cases and legal concepts are presented and discussed.

First Amendment, U.S. Constitution. Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech….

Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 483 U.S. 726 (1978) The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s ruling against a radio station that broadcast a comedy routine by George Carlin about the seven “filthy words” kept out of polite conversation. In the routine, Carlin repeatedly used the dirty words. The broadcast took place during the evening rush hour. A parent driving with his children and listening to the broadcast on his car radio complained about the bad language. The majority found the words “vulgar,” “offensive, “ and “shocking,” and said the time of the broadcast, when children may likely be listening, was a major factor in the decision.”

Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997) The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was an unconstitutional burden on adult speech. The CDA prohibited knowingly making available obscene or indecent messages to a person under 18 years of age. Although the government has an interest in protecting children, the CDA suppressed a broad range of constitutionally protected speech for adults.

Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library (1998). A U.S. district court held that a county policy requiring filters on all of its public library Internet computers was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.


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