Landmark Court Cases Impact on Digital Communication

Reno v. ACLU (1997)

Case Summary

The legitimacy of two elements of the 1996 Communications Decency Act was contested by several claimants (Reno V American Liberties Union, 1997. The act made it illegal to intentionally disseminate obscene information and materials that portray sexual and excretory acts or organs in a way considered offensive by social standards. The design of the act shielded young people from inappropriate online content. The AG, Janet Reno, appealed to the supreme court based on the act’s special review provisions after a court prohibited enforcement except for the one regarding obscenity and its implicit protection against child pornography (Reno v ACLU, 1997). The appeal attempted to question whether the 1996 communication decency Act was too inclusive and ambiguous in describing the types of online communications which violated the First and fifth amendments. The court ruled the act unconstitutional as its rules curtailed content-based free expression. In addition, it was upheld that the legislation was ambiguous in describing the types of indecent online communications violating the First Amendment.

Case Ruling Impact on Digital Communication Practices and Law and the Communication Industry

The Supreme Court declared in Reno v ACLU (1997) that the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) was an unlawful restraint on free speech. The precedent-setting decision confirmed the risk of banning what one magistrate called “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed” (Reno v ACLU 1997). As a result, congress introduced the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), imposing penalties for posting potentially harmful explicit content knowingly on the world wide web for commercial purposes (Purdy, n.d.). Consequently, COPA attracted another ruling suggesting less restrictive alternatives preventing children from accessing sexually explicit materials.

Content and Messaging Changes Made by Companies as a Result of the Changes in Communication Law

The court’s ruling impacted communication practices in various companies as it was confirmed that any speech on the internet should also have high First Amendment protection, similar to the print media (Reno v ACLU, 1997). This judgment opposed the low FA protection provided to the broadcast media. The COPA limited the content and messages shared online for commercial purposes. Failure to adhere to this act by having minors access sexually explicit information resulted in a monetary penalty imposed by the legislation. With the newly defined types of online indecency violating FA protection, companies became more cautious about the type of publicly-shared online messages.

Alexander v. United States (1993)

Case Summary

The owner of multiple enterprises that sold sexually explicit products was found guilty after a thorough criminal trial (Alexander v. United States, 1993). The owner was convicted of violating federal obscenity laws. The conviction was based on breaking the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and the federal obscenity statutes. These counts were predicated on the indecency convictions premised on a conclusion that seven products offered at his outlets were sexually explicit. As a penalty for RICO breaches, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the petitioner to surrender his enterprises and $9 million obtained from the criminal conduct (Alexander v. United States, 1993). In addition, the business owner was convicted to a prison term and fine. The court also determined that the claims that the confiscation provisions of RICO overboard do not violate the eighth amendment.

Case Ruling Impact on Digital Communication Practices and Law and the Communication Industry

The court ruling in Alexander v. United States, 1993, had no direct impact on digital communication practices and law. However, the conviction promoted other recommendations with similar circumstances, for instance, the commission’s proposal of the implementation of creating a task force to investigate federal obscenity. This enforcement unit participated in the prosecution of alleged pornographers. In addition, the court’s message in the ruling made it clear that films, books, magazines, and other forms of communication have to be treated as if they have First Amendment protection. However, this ruling only applies unless a court determines they are sexually explicit.

Content and Messaging Changes Made by Companies as a Result of the Changes in Communication Law

The ruling did not directly impact companies’ content and messaging based on new direct communication laws. However, the case judgment influenced how communication professionals engaged with the law. For instance, the petitioner’s convictions for obscenity were based on offering items at the store which contained sexually explicit material. Therefore, the ruling of this petitioner’s case enhanced digital communicators to be careful when dealing with products or information perceived as pornographic. However, the ruling consequently led to a debate on whether the destruction of materials based on obscenity violations was a prior restraint on the communication industry’s protected expression.

Pope v. Illinois (1987)

Case Summary

Pope v. Illinois (1987) involved petitioners who were employees at an adult bookshop. These attendants were separately prosecuted under Illinois laws for the crime of profanity after they offered some magazines to the federal police. Based on Miller v California, 413 U.S. 15, the trier of fact has to investigate whether the materials in question lack serious literary, political, or aesthetic value for it to pass the “value” aspect of the three-part test that evaluates if the material is profane (Pope v. Illinois, 1987). The juries were also expected to consider how the general adult population perceived the content. The State Appellate Court upheld both petitioners’ verdicts. In addition, the court rejected their argument that the “value” question needed to be evaluated based on an objective basis, as opposed to the light of current societal standards.

Case Ruling Impact on Digital Communication Practices and Law and the Communication Industry

The court ruling in Pope v Illinois (1987) also had no direct impact on digital communication law. However, the judgment’s application of the LAPS prong to determine whether the materials in question lacked any serious literary in the aspect of politics, art, and science raised concern to adhere to having and sharing contents with ‘value.’ During the judgment, the judge also advised the jury to consider the societal standards while conducting the LAPS prong. This concern also changed the communication industry’s perception of value by considering what is perceived to be acceptable in society.

Content and Messaging Changes Made by Companies as a result of the Changes in Communication Law

Although no changes were made in the communication law, the ruling provided a different approach to content and messages. The three-part test evaluating whether material is profane promotes caution on the type of publicly shared content and its ability to offer so. In addition, the content shared on the internet was expected to follow societal standards. Therefore, companies had to evaluate any communication made to determine whether it followed the community guidelines.

Best Legal Practices When Creating Digital Messages and Other Content for the Company

The power of digital communication can be of enormous benefit. However, it can also lead to the fall of any individual or company. Therefore, numerous ideal practices can assist the digital platform user when creating digital messages and other communication content for their company. First, one should refrain from sharing sexually explicit materials on online networks to maintain a sense of morality in digital activities. Second, a person must create messages that do not cause harm or adverse effects on individuals in their immediate vicinity, especially minors. Lastly, as a best legal practice, it is essential to analyze messages before posting to prevent the possibility of being perceived as offensive and not meeting the current societal standards. According to Moore and Murray (2017), the consideration and reasoning ensure the caution of sexually explicit materials accidentally falling into the hands of minors.


Alexander v. United States. 509 (U.S. S.Ct. 1993). Web.

Moore, R. L., Murray, M. D., Farrell, J. M., & Youm, K. H. (2017). Media law and ethics. Routledge.

Pope v. Illinois. 481 (U.S. S.Ct. 1987). Web.

Purdy, E. R. (n.d). Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (1998). The First Amendment encyclopedia. Web.

Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union. 521 (U.S. S.Ct. 1997). Web.

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LawBirdie. "Landmark Court Cases Impact on Digital Communication." July 29, 2023.