This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Media Unspun email newsletter and is Copyright 2002 by Keith Dawson.
M E D I A   U N S P U N
Whose Community Is It, Anyway?

When the Supreme Court speaks on a matter as far-reaching as protecting children from harmful stuff online, everybody feels obligated to cover it, even if the Persons in Black speak with all the clarity of Yoda.

The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse called the court's decision on the 1998 Child Online Protection Act "fractured" and "as messy a product as the court has brought forth in several years." In four separate concurring opinions, eight justices managed to find no common ground except to send the case back to an appeals court for more scrutiny.

The two coastal Timeses turned in sophisticated analyses of the court's ruling. The L.A. Times' David G. Savage led with the apparent agreement among the eight concurring justices -- that "community standards" can govern content on the placeless Internet without automatically triggering First Amendment concerns -- before digging into the nuances of the "unusually divided" opinions. The New York Times stressed that the COPA law had "barely survived an initial Supreme Court test" and suggested that the outcome hinted that the court "may ultimately find the law unconstitutional."

MSNBC ran AP coverage that was more thorough than some of the bylined copy Unspun reviewed. The AP spent three paragraphs on John Paul Stevens, the lone justice who dissented entirely from the court's majority, choosing to quote his ringing line: "In the context of the Internet ... community standards become a sword, rather than a shield." Wired's Declan McCullagh also probed the dissent, noting Justice Stephen Breyer's concern that "adopting the community standards of every locality in the United States would provide the most puritan of communities with a heckler's Internet veto affecting the rest of the nation."

Several outlets including the Washington Post got quotes from proponents on both sides of the question of protecting kids from online porn, and predictably, both sides spun the divided ruling their way. The Post's Charles Lane summarized the likely result of yesterday's messy ruling: "months, if not years, of additional litigation before the precise parameters of anti-pornography regulation in cyberspace are established." If we're lucky, Episode 3 will be out by then and Yoda will clarify what it all means. - Keith Dawson

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