The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a challenge to the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, a law designed to block minors from accessing pornographic material on the Internet, which critics say prevents youths from accessing important sexual health information, including sites about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. The law, which has been blocked from taking effect, makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to post "material harmful to a minor" in a place where people under age 17 can easily access it unless the site's developers make a good faith effort to prevent non-adult users from gaining access, such as through a credit card number or adult-access code. The law has been ruled unconstitutional by two appeals courts and was prevented from taking effect, but the Bush administration requested the Supreme Court to examine the case and overturn the appellate court rulings. Oral arguments in the case will be heard in early 2004, with a decision by the high court expected by July.
White House officials say the law is needed to prevent children from gaining access to online pornography. But critics of the law, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the law could block Web sites that provide gynecological, safer-sex, or STD prevention information, including numerous sites offering tips on how to protect oneself from HIV exposure. They instead suggest that parents wishing to shield their children from sexually explicit material buy software filters that block pornographic Web sites.