Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether a federal statute that imposed a content-based restriction on online speech violated the First Amendment. That case, Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, marked the first instance in which the Supreme Court weighed in on the role of the Internet in the marketplace of ideas, and decided affirmatively that speech on the Internet is afforded protection under the First Amendment.
Over the course of the twenty years following Reno, the Internet has changed in size, shape, and substance. In 1997, about 40 million people used the Internet and “most colleges and universities,” “many corporations,” “many communities and local libraries,” and “an increasing number of storefront ‘computer coffee shops’” provided the public access to the Internet. Today, at least 280 million Americans use the Internet, 102 million U.S. households have in-home broadband Internet access, and 225 million Americans access the Internet through their mobile device. In 1997, popular uses of the Internet included e-mail, listservs, newsgroups, chatrooms, and the “World Wide Web” (which then consisted of around 100,000 websites), but today, social media dominates, with an estimated 81% percent of Americans participating.
Despite the seismic changes to the Internet since the Reno case was decided, the Court’s views on online speech have remained largely consistent, albeit more tailored to the times. Recently, in Packingham v. North Carolina, the Court struck down a content-neutral state law that restricted sex offenders’ access to “social networking” websites, finding that it violated the First Amendment. The significance of the Packingham opinion, particularly in its partial extension of Reno, goes beyond the four corners of the Court’s holding.