Prosecutors Try to Halt Web Speech Suit

Monday, July 12th 2004, 12:34 pm
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Prosecutors have asked a judge to freeze a free speech lawsuit brought by a suburban Philadelphia Internet firm while a grand jury investigates whether the company distributed child pornography.

Voicenet Communications and a subsidiary, Omni Telecom, sued the state and two county district attorneys last winter after investigators seized computer servers that subscribers had been using to browse pictures posted on Usenet, a global network of electronic bulletin boards.

The Ivyland, Pa., firm said it had no control over Usenet content and little way of knowing whether customers were using its ``QuikVue'' search tool to find child porn. The suit said the state acted unconstitutionally in seizing the equipment and demanded its return.

A federal judge had planned to issue a key decision on the complaint last week, but Bucks County District Attorney Diane Gibbons stalled the decision with a July 2 letter that revealed that a grand jury had been convened and asked that all rulings in the civil case be stopped until the probe was finished.

Voicenet attorneys said in a court filing that the grand jury was ``a charade, done for improper and vindictive purposes,'' and suggested it was convened for the sole purpose of derailing the civil case.

``This court cannot countenance, let alone reward the Bucks County district attorney for improperly manipulating the county investigating grand jury for her own purposes,'' the filing said.

U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin scheduled a hearing on the matter for Tuesday.

The skirmish is part of a larger battle over the legality of the government's attempts to regulate Internet porn.

Civil liberties groups have gone to court to block Pennsylvania from enforcing a law requiring Internet service providers to block customers from accessing Web sites containing child pornography _ a task they say would force ISPs to slash access to thousands of legal sites.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month blocked a federal law that would have required operators of U.S.-based Web sites to verify the age of customers before allowing them access to sexually explicit content. The court ruled that the law hindered the free speech rights of adults.