Booksellers Challenge South Carolina Internet Statute

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On Wednesday, November 6, booksellers and free speech advocates filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina a complaint asking that a South Carolina law be permanently enjoined. The statute criminalizes any work communicated on the Internet that is accessible in South Carolina and contains a depiction of nudity or sexual conduct considered to be "harmful to minors." Booksellers are concerned that the law could be construed to include material with sexual content sold on their Web sites.

Under the law, which took effect July 2001, "certain book covers and jackets posted on a bookseller's Web site could be considered harmful to minors" and constitute a criminal act, said Wanda Jewell, executive director for the Southeast Booksellers Association, a plaintiff in the case. "If we put anything on our Web site viewed as harmful to minors, we'd be responsible for that," she explained.

Other plaintiffs in the case include the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Association of American Publishers, Families Against Internet Censorship, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and Print Studio South, Inc.

The plaintiffs contend that the law violates the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The complaint states that "although the provision was enacted with the apparent goal of protecting minors from images deemed unsuitable for them, it has the effect of prohibiting adults from viewing and sending a wide array of valuable, constitutionally protected images they have a First Amendment right to view and send." Moreover, due to the global nature of the Internet, the law would ultimately prohibit constitutionally protected communications nationwide.

Similar Internet "harmful to minors" laws have been struck down in at least seven other states, including New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Arizona. "From our point of view, it remains important to continue to challenge unconstitutional statutes on the Internet," said Chris Finan, president of ABFFE. "This is the latest round in the battle for free speech in cyber space."

The State of Carolina has 20 days from receipt of the plaintiffs' complaint to file an answer with the District Court. The case has been assigned to Judge Patrick Michael Duffy, who was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1995.