Massachusetts Internet Obscenity Law Challenged - InformationWeek

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7/14/2010
01:48 PM
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Massachusetts Internet Obscenity Law Challenged

Federal suit charges law aiming to protect minors broadly censors online content.

A federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday by a group of booksellers and Internet content providers challenging the blocking of inappropriate online communications deemed "harmful to minors."

The suit is the result of a new Massachusetts law that went into effect on Monday, adding a provision to the state's obscenity law to prevent sexually explicit content on the Internet. Prior to its passage, bookstores and other groups were prohibited from selling and showing such material to children, but the law did not include the Internet. That led the state's highest court in February to overturn the conviction of a Beverly, Mass. man who sent instant messages of a sexual nature to someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court noted in its decision that it was up to the legislature, and not the court, to decide whether to include instant messages and other electronically transmitted communications as part of the law. That ruling propelled the state legislature to amend the law to include inappropriate content on computers and the Internet.

The plaintiffs argue that the new law places a broad censorship on the dissemination of information over the Internet and would apply to anything considered harmful to minors, but which adults have a constitutionally protected right to look at under the First Amendment. That would include "...valuable works of literature and art, safer sex information, examples of popular culture, and a wide range of robust human discourse about current issues and personal matters that may include provocative or sexually oriented language and images," the suit charged.

One of the plaintiffs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in its complaint that there is no easy way to prove someone's age online, meaning everyone needs to be dealt with as if they are minors. The lawsuit also stated that the U.S. Supreme Court shot down a similar federal law on First Amendment grounds, as did seven states that found restricted online communications to be unconstitutional.

Proponents say the new law will help protect children from sexual predators online. Violators face up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine or both.

Other plaintiffs include the Association of American Publishers, American Booksellers for Free Expression, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the Harvard Book Store. The suit was filed against state attorney general Martha Coakley and all of Massachusetts' district attorneys.

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