Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union

Following is the case brief for Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997)

Case Summary of Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union:

  • Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) to protect minors from harmful material on the Internet.
  • Two provisions of the CDA were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other plaintiffs.
  • The first provision at issue made it a crime to knowingly transmit “obscene or indecent” messages to anyone under 18 years old.  The second provision prohibited displaying to anyone under 18 “patently offensive” material.
  • A three-judge District Court panel found the CDA provisions in violation of the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, holding that the two provisions of the CDA were overbroad in the content they censored, and thus the provisions violated the First Amendment.

Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was meant to protect minors from harmful content on the Internet.  Two provisions in particular were challenged by the ACLU.

  1. It was a criminal offense to knowingly send “obscene or indecent” messages to a minor.
  2. It was a criminal offense to knowingly send material to a minor that depicted sexual or excretory activities or organs in a “patently offensive” way as determined by current community standards.

The ACLU and other plaintiffs argued that those provisions of the CDA were overbroad in violation of the First Amendment, and too vague in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  The Government, in turn, relied on the Supreme Court’s other obscenity decisions – Ginsberg v. New York, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, and Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc. – as support for the constitutionality of the CDA.

Ginsberg upheld the constitutionality of a statute that prohibited selling material to minors that was obscene as to minors, but not obscene as to adults; Pacifica upheld the constitutionality of sanctions on a radio station that aired explicit content at a time when children could hear it; Renton upheld the constitutionality of zoning ordinances that kept adult movie theaters out of residential areas.

Procedural History:

  • A three-judge panel of the District Court made findings of fact and held that the two CDA provisions in question violated both the First and Fifth Amendments.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court noted probable jurisdiction.

Issue and Holding:

Does a law that limits protected as well as unprotected speech violate the First Amendment?  Yes.


The Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania decision is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A law that prohibits both protected as well as unprotected speech violates the First Amendment.


Both provisions in question violate the First Amendment because they are both overbroad and vague.  Accordingly, there is no reason to analyze the case under the Fifth Amendment.

First, the cases cited by the Government are not persuasive here.  In Ginsberg, the statute in question did not prohibit parents from using their judgment on whether their own children could look at the prohibited material.  In Pacifica, the context of the broadcast, the time the explicit material was aired, was the important factor.  Finally, in Renton, the content of the speech was not being prohibited, just the location of the speech.  In this case, the CDA criminalizes the content of the speech.  Because we are dealing with the Internet, the speech prohibition cannot be overridden by a parent’s decision.  Further, the context nor the location of the speech matter because the Internet can be accessed at any time and place.

Second, the vagueness of the CDA is significant for two reasons:  (i) the CDA regulates the content of speech, which directly chills certain speech; and the terms “indecent” and “patently offensive” are undefined and vague; (ii) the CDA is a criminal statute, which comes with such severe sanctions that it will chill even lawful speech.

Third, the fact that one provision in question is similar to one of the three obscenity standards in the Court’s Miller v. California decision does not save it from being unconstitutionally vague.  The CDA provision is similar but not the same as one of the standards in Miller.

In sum, the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when regulating the content of speech.  It prohibits some protected speech as well as unprotected “obscene” speech.  The statute could have been more carefully tailored to permit lawful adult communication, while protecting minors from explicit material.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring in Part/Dissenting in Part (O’Connor):

The CDA was an attempt to create “adult zones” on the Internet.  Unfortunately, the CDA was not successful in creating a zone that passes constitutional muster.


Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union is one of the first times the Court tackled the issue of the Internet in the context of the First Amendment.  It shows that the Court can successfully protect the constitutional foundation of the First Amendment in the face of technological innovation.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Listen to the Oral Argument