The anti-pornography group Enough is Enough blamed COPA's latest legal defeat on the lead plaintiff in the case, the American Civil Liberties Union, saying the free-speech watchdog group "very carefully whipped up hysteria and paranoia over this very reasonable law."
Enough is Enough spokeswoman Shyla Welch said COPA "gives the Web exactly the same First Amendment protection as print" materials, and concluded, "The judge merely bought into the ACLU's disgraceful fear-mongering."
U.S. District Court Judge Lowell Reed Jr. ruled Monday that the law violates the First Amendment by effectively blocking adults from viewing sexual content on the Web, extending a three-month-old ban on its enforcement until a trial on a permanent injunction is held. Violators would face up to six months in jail and up to $50,000 (£30,000) in fines per violation.
The government has 60 days to decide whether to proceed with such a trial or to file an appeal of the temporary injunction. If the latter option is chosen, the case will move to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Department of Justice said Tuesday it was still reviewing the ruling and had not yet decided on an appeal.
The ACLU and 17 other plaintiffs filed suit to block the measure in November, soon after COPA was signed into law by President Clinton, calling it simply a rehash of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The Supreme Court overturned the CDA on First Amendment grounds in 1997.
COPA supporters in Congress said they hope the law -- which would make it a crime for for-profit Web sites to post sexually graphic material without ensuring that visitors are at least 18 -- would be upheld on appeal. "I look forward to a favorable judgment at the appellate level -- a day that will be celebrated by millions of parents and grandparents across the nation," said U.S. Rep. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa., in a statement.
Greenwood and U.S. Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., said in a statement the Clinton administration should "continue defending this law or [appeal] all the way to the Supreme Court. "In our view, traditional laws for minors at the state level have worked effectively to protect children from raw pornography without limiting adults' free expression or access to legal materials. "Through COPA, we seek only to apply the same, common-sense standard to the World Wide Web as prevails in the rest of our free and democratic society," the lawmakers said in their statement.
But the ACLU and other COPA opponents called Reed's ruling "a significant victory in 'Round 2' of the fight against federal online censorship."
"After listening to our clients describe their online speech, the court was clearly convinced that this new law would silence many voices on the Internet," said Ann Beeson, the ACLU's lead attorney in the case, in a statement.
The owner of a chain of gay-themed bookstores who was also a plaintiff in the case, Norman Laurila, said he was relieved by the ruling. Laurila said he had considered taking down his A Different Light Web site if the law was upheld. "I'm not ready to go to jail. I have stores to run," he said.
The Internet Alliance industry trade group also hailed the ruling. "The decision was not simply a victory for free speech, it was a victory for parents and people who care about children," said IA Executive Director Jeff Richards in a statement. "Underlying the decision is the reality that the Internet is the most responsive medium yet devised," he said. "Parents can control Internet content more effectively than armies of prosecutors and volumes of new laws."
Reed heard five days of testimony last month from COPA opponents, including the home-based operators of mom-and-pop Web sites and editors of large, well-financed online publications, along with COPA supporters including academics who said the law would help stem the tide of online pornography.
Reuters contributed to this report