In a case that could define free speech rights in cyberspace for years, a challenger to an anti-indecency Internet law told the Supreme Court on Wednesday the restrictions would "reduce the adult population to reading only what is fit for children."
But a federal attorney, defending the law, argued that without it, "every child with access to the Internet has a free pass into the equivalent of every adult bookstore and adult video store in the country."
While dozens of protesters and hundreds of tourists huddled outside the court in a wet snowfall, the nine justices inside the packed chamber seemed generally skeptical of the Communications Decency Act. Passed last year, the act outlaws the display of "indecent" material on the Internet anywhere that children might view it.
A three-judge panel in Philadelphia blocked implementation of the law after it was challenged by librarians, civil libertarians and some business groups.
The administration, represented by Deputy Solicitor General Seth Waxman, insisted the law is necessary to protect the nation's children from sexual predators on line and from exposure to indecent material on, for example, more than 8,000 sexually explicit World Wide Web sites.
The challengers to the law, represented by lawyer Bruce J. Ennis, countered that it would effectively ban a "vast amount" of speech by 40-million users from the Internet and "chill much speech that would not be considered indecent."
Several justices surprised observers with questions that appeared to show they considered the Internet a medium different from broadcast, cable TV and others on which the government is allowed to restrict some speech. Groups opposed to the law said they would have a better chance of prevailing if the court demonstrated some understanding of the technical issues involved.
"Some of the questions were very sophisticated," said Christopher Hansen, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that filed the original challenge to the law.
But the questioning largely dealt with the consequences of the law and the effectiveness of "blocking" software to let parents control what children see on the Internet. Justice Antonin Scalia also raised the issue of whether universal "tagging" of potentially indecent sites would be a more effective way to keep children away from them.
Justices pressed Waxman to explain whether the law would make felons out of parents who let their children read "indecent" material on a home computer, or sent an electronic mail with indecent material to their 17-year-old son away at college.
Waxman said the law might very well do that, but said Congress didn't intend such a reading and suggested the high court could make revisions in the law to exempt parents. But some of the justices suggested that the law would require substantial revision to meet Waxman's goal.
"That's the sort of tinkering courts don't do," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Stephen Breyer, likening the Internet in part to a party-line telephone, asked Waxman if a similar law might bar teenagers from discussing sexual experiences, "real or imagined" with one another on such a line.
"My concern is, whether in applying this (law) to the telephone, it would make large numbers of high school students across the country guilty of a federal crime," Breyer said.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor likened the Internet to a public park or town square, where government speech restrictions have historically been few. And she termed "worthless" two of the law's three main provisions: one that prohibits "knowingly" transmitting indecent material to minors, and one that precludes sending such material to a specific child.
Waxman replied that the provisions were "very necessary" to protect the Internet from "child predators."
The court is expected to issue its ruling by July.