NEW ORLEANS — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), two independent bookstores in New Orleans and a publisher have teamed up to challenge a new Louisiana law designed to protect minors from inappropriate content on the Internet.
On Nov. 4, the ACLU and Media Coalition filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books, both New Orleans-based, Future Crawfish Paper LLC, the publisher of Anti-Gravity magazine, American Booksellers Association and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
The bill signed into Louisiana law by Gov. Bobby Jindal, enacted as H.B. 153, requires that any person or entity in Louisiana publishing material “harmful” to minors on the Internet must make every visitor to their website “electronically acknowledge and attest” that they are at least 18 years old before being granted access to the material in question. Failure to comply with the law would result in a $10,000 fine.
"First, 8-year-olds don’t often buy things without parental supervision, and parents are the best judges of what is appropriate for their children," Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana stated when asked what ACLU believes is the best way to prevent young readers (8-year-olds, for example) from purchasing books intended for 16-year-olds.
"Second, it is legal for an 8-year-old to read anything not deemed legally “obscene” (and there are legal standards for that), so there is no legal way to prohibit an 8-year-old from reading anything not illegal," Esman added.
The ACLU stated in the complaint that it believes the act “places Plaintiffs in the untenable position of abiding by the Act and having their constitutional rights infringed, or violating the Act and risking prosecution.”
In the complaint, the ACLU asserted that the new law that went into effect on Aug.1, “places severe burdens on plaintiff booksellers” who will now be forced to verify the age of all their online visitors before allowing them to purchase books, and restrict access to underage viewers by prompting visitors to either verify their age before they enter the bookseller’s website or before they can view any literary content deemed harmful.
The ACLU stated that either alternative would pose a problem. Requiring booksellers to comb through every image (of which there are millions) in their online catalogs to assess which ones may be harmful to minors would be “extraordinarily burdensome,” and for some booksellers, impossible. And if a bookseller placed an age verification button in front of its entire website, older minors would be blocked from purchasing any book. In addition, the complaint stated that an age verification button “unconstitutionally labels” the booksellers and other content providers as an “adult business,” which the ACLU argued would carry negative connotations.
The ACLU also argued that the law would prevent an underage child from browsing a bookseller’s website in Louisiana, but that same child would be able to look for a bookseller in another state and view the same material they were blocked from viewing on a Louisiana bookseller’s website because Louisiana cannot impose the law on booksellers in other states, the complaint stated.
The plaintiffs also asked the court to have the Act declared unconstitutional and void, because “it violates the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to, and Commerce Clause of, the United States Constitution.”