How the Federal CDA of 1996, Janet Reno and scholastic Prior Review are linked

The 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) was one of the first attempts by the government to regulate content on the Internet. It dealt specifically with pornographic material found online. The act was aimed at protecting minors from inappropriate, explicit online content. However, in the case Reno v. The American Civil Liberties Union (1997), many of the provisions outlined in the original CDA were deemed unenforceable and unconstitutional.

In Reno, the Supreme Court ruled that the CDA was substantially overbroad and curtailed the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. In other words, the courts ruled that the same protection given to print publications should be given to online publications.

The CDA, while it was limited in scope by the Reno case, still grants immunity to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in libel and invasion of privacy cases. Those ISPs function as common carriers, according to the courts, much the same as do telephone service providers; they provide a service while not being held liable for how subscribers choose to use that service. And while this ruling does not directly apply to student online publications and their schools (who function, in many cases, as the ISP), it may protect the school from the content published to the student Web site if the publication functions as a public forum. That provision, of course, could be moot if the school exercises prior review and restraint, thus taking control – and, consequently, ownership – of the content published to the site.

On a side note, the CDA does include a “Good Samaritan” clause that allows Web site creators to screen “material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.”

Here’s a link to Candace Perkins Bowen’s statement as a plaintiff on behalf of JEA.

Aaron Manfull

Aaron is in his 26th year of advising student media. He is currently the Director of Student Media at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri. He is the Journalism Education Association Digital Media Chair and co-Director of Media Now. He is the 2023 JEA Teacher Inspiration Award Winner and is a former Dow Jones News Fund National Journalism Teacher of the Year. He is one of the authors of the textbook "Student Journalism and Media Literacy." You can find him on X and Instagram @manfull. He's a proud father. A transplanted Iowan. And an avid Hawkeye Fan.

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