A federal judge Monday barred enforcement of the Helms amendment, passed hastily by Congress last year in an attempt to prevent minors from listening to sexually explicit telephone recordings.
Saying the law "presents a threat of imminent irreparable harm to First Amendment freedoms," U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson Jr. ruled two days before the sweeping law was scheduled to take effect.
The law, aimed almost exclusively at the lucrative and fast-growing "dial-a-porn" industry, prohibits obscene telephone messages, bans any arrangement that makes indecent--but not obscene--messages available to persons under 18 and requires adults who want to hear them to subscribe to the services in writing.
Companies providing sex messages by phone have said requiring subscriptions in writing would destroy their business and unfairly restrict an individual's rights.
Although Patterson's ruling affects only New York state, Federal Communications Commission officials said it could be adopted nationally.
"The judge did a courageous and important thing Monday," said Joel Dichter, who represented five New York dial-a-porn companies in the suit in Manhattan federal court. "The law would have required customers to make a written request to obtain their First Amendment rights. That's ridiculous. There are far better ways to protect minors from obscenity."
The ruling is the first by a federal judge that confronts the emotional issue in which First Amendment rights appear to conflict with compelling problems faced by parents seeking to protect their children from access to inappropriate telephone messages.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Nancy Kilson said the ruling would be reviewed before a decision is made on whether to appeal.