A federal judge today halted the implementation of a Massachusetts law that would ban certain works from the Internet and punish distributors of works deemed to be “harmful to minors,” deeming it overly broad and in violation of the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Rya W. Zobel said the law, Chapter 74 of the Acts of 2010, was too broadly written because it did not require that materials in question be "purposefully sent to a person the sender knew to be a minor.” Signed into law this past April, the statute made anyone who operates a Web site or communicates through an electronic listserv criminally liable for nudity or sexually related material deemed harmful to minors, and subjected violators to a $10,000 and to up to five years in prison.
The decision comes after a group of booksellers, advocates and trade associations sued the state in July, arguing that the sweeping new law breached the First Amendment because it could be used to ban virtually anything from the Internet, including material adults have a First Amendment right to view. Plaintiffs included the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Harvard Book Store, the Photographic Resource Center, Porter Square Books.
A spokesperson for the plaintiffs said they were pleased with the judge’s decision, though it is unclear if legislators will attempt revive the law by shoring up its overly broad language. “The problems with this law show the danger of legislating out of fear, and in a hurry,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This case is a reminder that we need to remain ever-vigilant in the defense of basic civil liberties against lawmakers who try to capitalize on cases involving children to expand government power in ways that could be used to silence booksellers, artists, healthcare providers, and the rest of us.”
The ruling is the latest in a string of First Amendment battles for booksellers and publishers in the digital age ostensibly to protect minors. In September, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down two Oregon statutes aimed at preventing sexual abuse as overly broad and in violation of free speech protections. The recent battles recall the debate and lawsuits over filtering in public libraries and the subsequent lawsuit over Child Online Protection Act (COPA). COPA was invalidated by the third Circuit in 2003. In addition, seven state laws containing similar content-based restrictions for online communication have now been struck down or enjoined as unconstitutional, including cases in Virginia, Vermont, Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, and New York.