The juxtaposition of the two Internet speech cases decided earlier this month is striking — and instructive. On the East Coast, in Philadelphia, a federal judge struck down Congress’ latest effort to protect children from online pornography, concluding that the legislation is overly broad and abridges First Amendment rights. On the West Coast, a federal court jury in Oregon decided that a Web site entitled the “Nuremberg Files” constituted a direct threat to the lives and safety of abortion providers whose names, addresses, and other identifying information were posted on the site. The jury awarded $107 million to the abortion providers and sent a message that there are limits, even on the Internet, to threatening speech.
The lesson from the two cases seems clear: Wholesale regulation of Internet content is difficult, if not impossible, to defend. But specific content in a specific context may be illegal and should be controlled. In short, there are limits to what can appear on the Internet, but it is unlikely that legislators will be able to define those limits. As these cases demonstrate, the task of establishing the boundaries of Internet speech should be left to the courts.
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