Janet Reno became the first female attorney general of the United States with her appointment to the post in 1993 by newly elected president William Clinton. Having attended Cornell for her undergraduate degree, she later earned a law degree at Harvard—one of sixteen women in a class of over five hundred students—and at the age of thirty-nine, in 1977, she became the first female state attorney of Florida.
Reno took office at the Department of Justice during the third week of vigil by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at Waco, Texas. On April 17, 1993, Reno approved an FBI assault on the seventyacre compound where cult messianic leader David Koresh (also known as Vernon Howell) had been barricaded with around one hundred followers by his side, including several children, for several weeks. When the attack took place on April 19, a fire of controversial origin broke out, and in the aftermath, only nine cult members, all adults, fled the inferno. The FBI later recovered seventy-five charred bodies, including twenty-five children.
Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure, the bureau had expressly forbid homosexual agents from being hired. While the ban was supposedly dropped in 1979, the institutional bias against gay men and lesbians continued to linger. The FBI policy for screening employees permitted homosexuality to be a determining factor in hiring, retaining, and promoting a federal agent. According to the policy, the bureau argued an agent’s hidden homosexuality could invite blackmail, although they did not address the fact that had the Bureau allowed agents to openly acknowledge their homosexuality, they could not have been subjected to potential blackmail. In 1990, agent Frank Buttino, working in San Diego, sued the FBI for firing him. The bureau closed his security clearance when he lied when presented with a copy of a letter sent anonymously to his boss that he had written in response to an advertisement in a gay publication in 1988. His lawsuit expanded into a class action suit on behalf of all gay agents forced to deny or hide their homosexuality because of the bureau’s practices. As the trial opened in December 1993, Reno announced the sexual orientation would not longer receive special scrutiny during FBI and Justice Department security checks.
In her first year at Justice, Reno spoke to a Senate Commerce Committee about pending bills to regulate violent programming on network television. Reno testified that the bills were constitutional, and she threatened networks with crackdowns if they did not begin to police themselves. She called television violence a central theme in young people’s lives. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Title V of which became known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Title V made it a federal crime to knowingly transmit by personal computer obscene or indecent communication to anyone under eighteen. Thus, it became a federal crime to send anyone under eighteen years of age any communication in context, in depiction, or in description which could be construed as ‘‘patently offensive’’ by community standards of sexual or excretory activities or organs. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit citing the CDA as a violation of the First Amendment. In the 1997 case Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States, et al. v. American Civil Liberties Union et al., major sections of the CDA were struck down in a seven-totwo decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. One justice likened the regulations imposed by the CDA to burning down a house in order to roast a pig. The Court ruled that government regulation of speech was more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than encourage it and that, in a democracy, the interest of encouraging the freedom of expression must outweigh any unproven benefits of censorship. Later, the ACLU fought in court to declare the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) illegal. The law banned sending minors web material construed as ‘‘harmful to minors.’’ COPA intended to replace the more broadly worded CDA which had been declared unconstitutional in 1998. While COPA did allow websites to distribute pornography, it required websites distributing material ‘‘harmful to minors’’ to verify the adult status of its users in an approved manner. The ACLU argued that COPA violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
Reno remained attorney general through President Bill Clinton’s second term, stepping down in January 2001 when Republican George Bush assumed the presidency.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also American Civil Liberties Union; Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997); Strossen, Nadine