Two New Orleans bookstores have won an important battle in their challenge to a Louisiana law that would require them to verify the age of visitors to their store websites. A federal judge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, declared on Friday that the state law violates the First Amendment rights of both website owners and their customers. Judge Brian A. Jackson issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the law because it “creates a chilling effect on free speech.”
Louisiana officials may appeal the decision, but have agreed not to prosecute anyone while the lawsuit is pending.
Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books joined the American Booksellers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and Anti-Gravity, a Louisiana magazine, in filing the lawsuit in November after the state legislature passed the law.
“This is an important victory for me as a bookseller and for my customers. The law would have placed an impossible burden on our website by forcing us to ‘ID’ every person who visited the site,” said Octavia Books co-owner Tom Lowenberg.
Britton Trice, owner of Garden District Book Shop, also welcomed the decision. “I'm very relieved,” he said. “This law would have had a definite chilling effect on our business, depriving our customers of books that they have a First Amendment right to browse and buy.”
To comply with the law, booksellers and publishers would have been required to place an age confirmation page in front of their entire websites, restricting access to materials that might be appropriate for all ages, or they would have had to review all of the books or magazines available on their sites and then place an age-confirmation page in front of each page that might be inappropriate for minors. Under the law, violators would have been fined up to $10,000.
The plaintiffs argued 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 Media Coalition, a trade association that defends the First Amendment rights of producers and distributors of books, magazines, and other media, brought the lawsuit on behalf of ABA and the bookstores. It was joined by the ACLU national office and ACLU of Louisiana.
“We are thankful for the court’s ruling to block the state from enforcing this law that would have forced booksellers and publishers to restrict access of their customers and readers on their online stores to what is acceptable for a 12-year-old,” said David Horowitz, the executive director of Media Coalition. “The court agreed that parental controls are a more effective and less restrictive way for parents to limit their kids’ access to sexual material on the Internet without violating the constitutional rights of adults and older minors.”