WASHINGTON (AP) â€” In the name of free speech, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that shielded children from sex-oriented cable TV channels.
By a 5-4 vote Monday, the court said Congress cannot require cable operators to restrict sexually explicit programming to overnight hours as a way of minimizing the chance that partially audible or visible snippets reach children.
The decision, ending a dispute over regulating cable systems that fail to fully scramble signals for nonsubscribers, was both hailed as a victory over government censorship and attacked as an abandonment of impressionable youngsters.
``We're pleased. This decision takes into account the needs of viewers who want this programming and those who do not. Both can be accommodated, and cable is committed to making sure such channels are blocked for viewers who don't want them,'' said Daniel Brenner of the National Cable Television Association.
But Janet LaRue, an attorney with the Family Research Council, called the ruling an ``outrage.''
``It's a sad day when the protection of children takes a back seat to the profits of pornographers,'' she said.
The law, part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, was bottled up in legal challenges most of the time since its enactment. It was enforced only from May 1997 to March 1998.
It required cable operators that fail to fully scramble or block for nonsubscribers such sex-oriented networks as Playboy Television to make those ``indecent'' channels available only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Unlike obscene material, indecent material is entitled to constitutional protection under the First Amendment's freedom of speech guarantees.
Most cable operators opted for the time restriction because technology for complete scrambling of signals for nonsubscribers is prohibitively expensive. As a result, even subscribers could not receive the sexually explicit programming for most of the day.
The law's enforcement was suspended when a three-judge federal court ruled in 1998 that a less restrictive way to protect children exists â€” requiring cable operators to block out any channel for free when requested to do so by any individual customer. That requirement is found in another provision of the 1996 law.
The Supreme Court said the three-judge court was correct.
``If a statute regulates speech based on its content, it must be narrowly tailored to promote a compelling government interest,'' Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court's slender majority. ``If a less restrictive alternative would serve the government's purpose, the legislature must use that alternative.''
He added: ``This case involves speech alone; and even where speech is indecent and enters the home, the objective of shielding children does not suffice to support a blanket ban if the protection can be accomplished by a less restrictive alternative.''
Cable operators that are slow to react to customers' requests that sex channels be blocked at their homes can be fined or otherwise penalized, Kennedy said.
Government lawyers had argued that requiring parents to contact cable operators has not proved effective, and that the so-called ``signal bleed'' problem of not fully scrambled broadcasts persists in some 39 million homes.
Typical of the complaints federal regulators received over the years is the Florida woman who said she found her 7- and 8-year-old children and a playmate one afternoon watching on the Spice channel scenes of a couple seemingly having sex, with the ``groans and epithets that go along.''
Kennedy's opinion said, ``A court should not presume parents, given full information, will fail to act'' and order that such channels be totally blocked at their home.
He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Stephen G. Breyer and Antonin Scalia dissented. Writing for the four, Breyer said the court was wrong in finding an adequate alternative ``where there are none.''
``The court reduces Congress' protective power to the vanishing point,'' Breyer said.
On the Net: For U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, 98-1682: