The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on whether to reinstate a hotly debated Internet pornography law, bringing an end to over three years of wrangling over whether the law violates First Amendment rights.

The court’s decision could not only affect sellers of explicit material online, and their potential customers, but could ultimately set standards for Internet free speech.

The Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA), which levels heavy criminal penalties against the knowing distribution of online materials deemed harmful to minors, first came under fire just days after it was passed on Oct. 23, 1998, when opponents of the law claimed that it cast its punitive net too wide and stifled free speech on the Internet.

Privacy advocate group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) immediately filed suit, claiming that the law violates First Amendment rights to free speech and since then a string of injunctions have kept it from being enacted.

Although a federal appeals court declared that COPA stymies online speech, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court earlier this year in hopes of getting the law reinstated.

While the Justice Department argues that COPA balances adults’ free speech rights with the protection of children online, opponents claim that the language is overly vague.

The law states that “whoever knowingly and with knowledgeable character of the material, in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web, makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors shall be fined not more than US$50,000, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”

Opponents have said that not only is the use of the word “commercial” vague and open to interpretation, the law could also potentially be applied to content such as art and health.

The Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments this week.



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