Groups challenge Internet obscenity law

/ Source: The Associated Press

Internet content providers have asked a judge to stop Massachusetts from enforcing a portion of an expanded obscenity law that includes electronic communications that may be harmful to minors.

The coalition says the new state law effectively bans from the Internet anything that may be considered "harmful to minors," including material adults have a First Amendment right to view.

Supporters say the new law closes a loophole that led the state's highest court to overturn the conviction of a man accused of sending sexually explicit instant messages to someone he believed was a 13-year-old girl.

The content providers are seeking to bar enforcement as it applies to broad-based Internet communications.

U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel did not immediately rule after hearing arguments Tuesday.

The groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Association of American Publishers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, filed a federal lawsuit in July challenging the new law.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley and the state's district attorneys are named as defendants.

The content providers argue that the new law is overly broad and infringes on their First Amendment rights. They also say there is no way for them to tell how old users are or to restrict the access of minors.

Lawyers from the groups wrote in court papers that the law could have been written narrowly and banned someone from sending such material "to an individual known or believed by the defendant to be a minor," but instead broadly restricts "the dissemination on the Internet of any material which is 'harmful to minors.'"

The content providers say 18 federal judges in five circuit courts have struck down similar laws in other states, some on First Amendment grounds.

But lawyers for Coakley and the state's district attorneys say the content providers have an "unreasonably broad reading" of the new law, which they say is not like the laws that were struck down in other states. The new Massachusetts law, they say, prohibits electronic communication of obscene materials only if the defendant specifically intends to direct the matter to someone under 18.

"Contrary to plaintiffs' assertions, the statute does not regulate any protected adult-to-adult speech, nor does it criminalize the publication of harmful matter on the Internet for all to see, even with the knowledge that a minor may gain access to it," lawyers from Coakley's office wrote in their legal briefs.

Free-speech advocates said they are concerned that the new law will have a chilling effect on Internet content providers.

"We are just afraid that content providers online are going to preemptively censor themselves to stay on the right side of the law," said Christopher Ott, a spokesman for the ACLU of Massachusetts.