Court Cases

Welcome to the "Court Cases" page. In this page, we will be telling you about court cases that have been involved with technology and censorship.

Table of Contents
CompuServe Incorporated v. Patterson, Case No.C2-94-91
Summary: This case was one of the first cases involving online services. The ruling determined if online services were responsible for its users' crimes.
Background: Online services/Internet can be described as a publishing, distributing, and/or shared message systems. Each have different implications. Case: The court case started when a publisher of a rival newsletter sued the publisher of a electronic newsletter using CompuServe. CompuServe was added as the codefendent in the case because the rival publisher claimed that CompuServe was to be responsible its content. In 1990, the federal court ruled that online services are merely distributors, hence, not responsible for any materials in its site.
Importance: If the ruling had been against CompuServe, the ruling would have put a chill in free speech, not only in online services, but also in the Internet. The chill would have come from system administrators' fear of being sued for their users' actions. Hence, they would have severely limited what users can post on their Web pages and send via email. Source: NetLaw: Your Rights in the Online World (
Rose 2-26)

Stratton-Oakmont & Porush v. Prodigy
Summary: In this case the securities investment banking firm of Stratton Oakmont, Inc., and its president, Daniel Porush, sued the communications service provider Prodigy Services Company because of potentially libelous statements made by an unknown poster on Prodigy's Money Talk bulletin board. A New York State court ruled on May 24, 1995 that since Prodigy, being the board's moderator, has control over the messages posted, it is therefore liable for the content of those messages.
Case: The statements made on the bulletin board suggested that Stratton Oakmont had committed criminal and fraudulent acts in connection with the initial public offering of stock of Solomon-Page, Ltd. Prodigy argued that it could not be held responsible for the statements of its users, but the court disagreed. The court made their ruling on the basis that Prodigy has editorial control over the messages posted on its boards and also has power to control the actions of the volunteer leaders of the Money Talk bulletin board. Thus, Prodigy was held accountable for the libelous statements made.
Importance: This case could have major affects for BBS systems operators and Internet newsgroup moderators. The decision essentially states that such individuals or companies are responsible for what their users state online. Thus, these individuals or companies would be forced to place restrictions on what their users can and cannot say. Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation (
EFF n.p.)

Dial Information v. Thornburgh, 938 F.2d 1535
Information Provider's Coalition v. FCC, 928 F.2d 866
Sable Communications v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 109 S. Ct. 2829

Summary: A court case deciding what is indecent material and if it is protected under the First Amendment
Background: While obscenity was found not to protected under First Amendment by the Supreme Court, protection of indecency was affirmed.
Case:In previous court cases for FCC, the Supreme Court has said that even indecent materials can be censored if the broadcast medium is highly accessible. A highly accessible medium would be, for example, television. However, in Sable Communications v. FCC, the Supreme Court ruled that Sable Communications, which was providing a dial-a-porn service through telephones, can not be censored by the FCC on the use of indecent materials. The Supreme Court said that telephones require interaction in part of the caller. Hence, if the system operations provide a system where they can check the age of the caller, they can not be censored by the FCC.
Importance: The argument by Sable Communications is essentially the same arguments ACLU, EFF et al., are using in their suit against the Communications Decency Act. ACLU, EFF et al., are arguing that accessing indecent sites in the Internet require interaction, hence according to Sable Communications v. FCC, Internet cannot be censored by the government. Source: NetLaw: Your Rights in the Online World (
Rose 253-256)

American Civil Liberties Union et al. v. Janet Reno
Summary: In this case the ACLU and several other organizations have filed suit against Attorney General Janet Reno, challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act. This case is due to be reviewed by the Supreme Court in the near future. Case: This is currently one of the most important cases being taken to court in the United States. The case challenges the constitutionality of the
Communications Decency Act, one of the provisions of the Federal Telecommunications Bill. This controversial act makes it illegal for anybody to make "indecent" or "patently offensive" statements on a computer network if the material is accessible to minors. The ACLU argues that "indecent" and "patently offensive" are "vague and overbroad" terms, and thus the bill is unconstitutional. Under this act, a great deal of information could be censored. For instance, minors would not be permitted to access information concerning birth control or abortion, both of which may be important information to teenagers. Last spring, a federal court in Philadelphia upheld the ACLU's opinion that the act violates the First Amendment and issued an injunction barring the government from enforcing the Communications Decency Act. The government then decided to appeal this injunction to the Supreme Court which will issue the final decision.
Importance: This case will be the first real statement on how traditional First Amendment free speech values will apply to the new medium of the Internet. Under the Communications Decency Act, the Internet would be subject to restrictions which do not exist for the written medium. The government argues that this provision is necessary due to the mass-availability of information on the Internet. Whether or not such a provision violates the First Amendment has yet to be determined. Source: Americal Civil Liberties Union (ACLU n.p.)

Miller v. California, 412 U.S. 15, 93 S. Ct. 2607
Summary: A case originated from Orange County California, affirmed government's right to prosecute obscenity cases.
Case: Miller was convicted of mailing unsolicited sexually explicit materials under California law. The Superior Court of California affirmed the conviction by saying that states do have a valid interest in prohibiting the transmission of obscene materials. However, the court said that all pornography except "hard-core" pornography is protected by the First Amendment. Their argument was that "soft-core" pornography could have some literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Importance:This case struck a balance between the government's right to regulate and freedom of speech. While "hard-core" pornography is still not protected under the Constitution, "soft-core" pornography has some possibility of being protected. Source: NetLaw: Your Rights in the Online World (
Rose 360)

U.S. v. Thomas, Case No. 94-20019-G Summary: One of the first cases to challenge restrictions of obscene materials online.
Case: Robert Thomas and his wife Carleen Thomas operated a BBS called Amateur Action Computer Bulletin Board System (AABBS). They stored pornography images in their BBS so that subscribers to their system could "download" the images. Downloading is a process of coping a file from computer to another. The Thomas required verification of age and payment of a membership fee for a person to access their BBS. In July 1993, a United States Postal Inspector, Agent David Dirmeyer, received a complaint and followed through with it. He subscribed to the Thomas' BBS and downloaded some sexually-explicit images. He also requested to be sent a sexually-explicit magazine and videos. On January 25, 1994, a federal grand jury indicted the Thomas' with twelve-count violations under obscenity laws. They were convicted in July 1994 and have subsequently appealed.
Importance: This case tests the traditional definition of obscenity. Currently, a person can be convicted of transmitting obscenity from any community in United States. However, since online-services/Internet is a global service, one person's obscenity can be another's art work. Source: Virtual Community Standards (
Godwin n.p.)

Restrictions to Freedom of Speech Online
Logo Ben Chen (Web/e-mail)
Chang Choi (e-mail)
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Ashish Koul (e-mail)
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