WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law meant to punish pornographers who peddle dirty pictures to Web-surfing kids is probably an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.
The high court divided 5-to-4 over a law passed in 1998, signed by then-President Clinton (news - web sites) and now backed by the Bush administration. The majority said a lower court was correct to block the law from taking effect because it likely violates the First Amendment.
In considering the issue a third time, the court did not end a long fight, however. The majority voted to send the case back to a lower court for a trial that could give the government a chance to prove the law does not go too far.
The ruling in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites) was the last of nearly 80 cases decided in a busy court term that ended Tuesday with no announcements that any of the nine justices would retire. The year's marquee cases involving presidential power to deal with suspected terrorists were announced Monday, and for the most part represented a loss for the Bush administration.
The majority, led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said there may have been important technological advances in the five years since a federal judge blocked the law.
Holding a new trial will allow discussion of what technology, if any, might allow adults to see and buy material that is legal for them while keeping that material out of the hands of children.
Justices John Paul Stevens (news - web sites), David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas (news - web sites) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (news - web sites) agreed with Kennedy.