Congress suffered yet another setback Thursday in its ongoing efforts to shield children from sexually explicit content on the Internet when a federal judge struck down the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 federal law that makes it a crime for commercial Web site operators to allow children access to “harmful” material.Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr. said he was forced to conclude that the law violates the First Amendment — but also said he wasn’t happy to do so.

Reed said that “despite my personal regret at having to set aside yet another attempt to protect our children from harmful material,” he also recognized, as Justice Anthony Kennedy did in striking down a flag-burning statute, that judges have a duty at times to make decisions they do not like.

But Reed said he also concluded that allowing the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) to take effect would actually do more harm to children in the long run.

“Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection,” Reed wrote in his 84-page opinion in ACLU v. Gonzales.

The crux of Reed’s reasoning in striking down the law was that there are less-restrictive means available for protecting children than a criminal statute that will have a chilling effect. Parents, Reed said, can protect their children through software filters and other means that do not limit the rights of others to free speech.

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