Judge Sides With Bookstores, Blocks 'Age Verification' Law

BATON ROUGE (AP) — A federal judge on Friday blocked enforcement of a Louisiana criminal law that requires online booksellers, publishers and other website owners to electronically verify customers' ages before providing access to material that could be deemed harmful to children.

         U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson granted a preliminary injunction requested by two New Orleans bookstores and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

         Jackson said the 2005 law's "vagueness" would cause a "chill on protected speech."

         "A possible consequence of the chill caused by (the law) is to drive protected speech from the marketplace of ideas on the Internet," the Baton Rouge-based judge wrote.

         ACLU attorneys argued that the law imposes unconstitutional, overly broad restrictions on anyone who wants to distribute material over the Internet. And they questioned whether it could have any practical effect on children's access to online pornography, or other potentially harmful material, since the law only applied to material published in Louisiana.

         "It's just blatant censorship, and it takes away from parents the discretion to decide what they want their children to read," said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

         Former State Rep. Tim Burns, a Mandeville Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the statute was intended to protect children from pornography. He compared the law's age verification requirements to ones that already apply to companies marketing and selling alcohol or tobacco products.

         "Children's use of pornography is hitting epidemic proportions and is becoming a real problem," Burns said. "It's just a shame that the smallest level (requirements) I could think of wouldn't hold constitutional muster."

         The plaintiffs challenging the law include the Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books LLC in New Orleans and the publisher of Antigravity magazine.

         District attorneys from 42 judicial districts in Louisiana opposed the plaintiffs' bid for a preliminary injunction.

         Website owners faced fines of up to $10,000 for not complying with the law. Its age-verification requirement didn't apply to Internet service providers or "any bona fide news or public interest broadcast, website, video, report, or event."

         – by AP Reporter Michael Kunzelman



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