In a 5-4 vote, the high court said the law, which was signed by President Clinton and supported by the Bush administration, may unduly restrict access by adults to sexually suggestive, yet constitutionally protected, material.
The law, which never took effect, would have authorized fines up to $50,000 and prison terms of up to six months for placing sexually explicit material deemed “harmful to minors” on commercial Web sites.
Tuesday’s decision, however, is not the end of the line for the controversial law. The court sent the case back to a lower court to allow the government the chance to “update the factual record to reflect current technological realities” and prove the law does not compromise First Amendment rights.
The majority, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, wrote that alternatives, such as blocking and filtering software, is “likely more effective as a means of restricting children’s access to materials harmful to them” than the Child Online Protection Act.
In a separate case, the Supreme Court ruled that foreigners cannot use a little-known U.S. law to sue in American courts over human rights abuses.
The decision effectively throws out damages won by a doctor kidnapped in Mexico and brought to the United States to face trial in the death of a federal drug agent. The doctor, Humberto Alvarez-Machain, was acquitted and then used the 1789 law, known as the Alien Tort Claims Act, to sue the people who authorized and executed his abduction.
In a unanimous ruling, the justices agreed that the law does not create a right to bring lawsuits like the one pursued by Alvarez-Machain, saying the doctor’s lawsuit belonged in Mexican courts.
The doctor’s case prompted the Supreme Court’s first ruling on the Alien Tort Claims Act, which has been invoked in other recent cases where alleged victims of international human rights abuses won judgments in U.S. courts.
RealAudio: Marcia Coyle, Washington bureau chief for the National Law Journal, outlines the final two rulings from this term of the Supreme Court.