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Massachusetts’ New Obscenity Law Challenged

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Massachusetts State House by David Paul Ohmer on Flickr

Massachusetts State House by David Paul Ohmer on Flickr

Massachusetts’ new obscenity provisions, which broaden an existing law to include text messages, e-mails, and other electronic communications, is already being challenged by bookstores, civil rights’ groups, and Internet providers. The law intends to protect minors from harmful content, and those who violate the law are subject to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Massachusetts legislature passed the law in response to a recent case in which the state’s highest court overturned the conviction of a man alleged to have sent sexually charged text messages to a person he believed was a 13-year-old girl. The previous law prohibited certain groups including bookstores “from selling sexually explicit books and magazines to children and banned people from showing pornography to children, but it did not cover the Internet,” according to The Boston Globe.

Just a few days old, the law has already elicited a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Association of American Publishers, American Booksellers for Free Expression, and the Harvard Book Store. These groups argue that the new provisions constitute a “a broad censorship law that imposes severe content-based restrictions” on what is otherwise constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment — which could include information regarding pregnancy, safe sex, and even some books and art.

The lawsuit asserts that the law is overly broad in that it includes “all Internet communications — such as postings on websites and through listservs, which might be read or seen by a minor — and not merely those communications directed to a specific minor.”

The plaintiffs don’t doubt the good intentions of the law, but “[w]hile this act may have been motivated by the desire to protect children from sexual predators on the Internet, its effect is much broader,’’ said John Reinstein, ACLU of Massachusetts’ Legal Director. “Its inevitable effect, if permitted to stand, is that Internet content providers will limit the range of their speech.’’

The lawsuit names Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and various state district attorneys as defendants; a spokesman for Coakley said, “We are prepared to defend the statute against efforts to block this critical new child protection.’’

What do you think? Who wins? Is this new law too broad or is it necessary to protect children from harmful content on the Internet?

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July 15th, 2010 at 10:08 am

Posted in First Amendment

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