Booksellers Challenge Louisiana Age-Verification Law

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The American Booksellers Association has joined two New Orleans bookstores in filing a legal challenge to a new Louisiana law that requires website owners to post a page where customers must indicate whether they are 18 or older before accessing material that is “harmful to minors” because of its sexual content. Failure to comply is punishable by a $10,000 fine.

Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books, and ABA are challenging the law as a violation of the First Amendment rights of booksellers, publishers, and readers. The case was filed on Wednesday, November 4, in federal district court in Baton Rouge by Media Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition to the booksellers, the other plaintiffs are the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Future Crawfish Paper, a Louisiana company that publishes the magazine Anti-Gravity.

The plaintiffs plan to seek a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law until a judge rules on its constitutionality.

To comply with the law, booksellers and magazine publishers must either place an age-verification page in front of the entire website, preventing minors from accessing any material on the site, or attempt to review all of the books or magazines available on their website and place a page in front of each individual image that might be “harmful,” including book and magazine covers.

“Since we cannot possibly review the one million-plus titles on our website, the law would force us to ask every customer visiting our website whether he or she is an adult,” said Britton Trice, the owner of the Garden District Book Shop. “That would have a strong and chilling effect on our business because it would make us appear to be an adult bookstore.”

The plaintiffs argue that the law violates the First Amendment rights of older minors as well as adults. Courts have held that older minors have a right to purchase books with sexual content that is appropriate for their age. However, the Louisiana law bars everyone under 18 from accessing all “harmful” material.

“The law is a serious threat to the First Amendment rights of booksellers and our customers,” said Tom Lowenburg, the co-owner of Octavia Books. “Our job is to get customers the books they want, but this law makes it impossible by forcing us to block access to 16- and 17-year-olds who want to browse Young Adult novels and other works that may be inappropriate for younger minors.”

Plaintiffs are represented by Media Coalition general counsel Dentons US LLP, the ACLU national office, and ACLU of Louisiana.

ABA is a founding member of Media Coalition, which has defended the First Amendment rights of producers and distributors of books, magazines, and other constitutionally protected works since 1973.