New Mass. Law Extends Censorship to Web, IM, Email

BOSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, along with other organizations, is challenging a new Massachusetts statute that went into effect this week that is intended to ban distribution by the Internet of "matter harmful to minors."

The new obscenity law extends transmission of obscene material to web content, instant messaging, email and cellphone text messaging.

Plaintiffs in a suit filed this week said the law may have been intended to protect children from sexual predators, but that its effect is too broad.

John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement that there was no way for Internet content providers to know how old the users were who were accessing their content and to restrict access to minors.

"[I]nternet content providers will be limited to the range of their speech," Reinstein said.

Further, the law could lead to bans on constitutionally protected speech on topics such as sexual health, literature and art.

The statute previously defined the "matter" that could be harmful as any "handwritten or printed material, visual representation, live performance or sound recording," including books, magazines and movies.

Plaintiffs named to the suit include the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and Harvard Book Store.

The battle is reminiscent over the subsequent lawsuit over Child Online Protection Act (COPA) in ACLU vs. Mukasey. COPA was invalidated by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003.

In addition, seven state laws containing similar content-based restrictions for online communication have been struck down or restrained as unconstitutional in cases brought by ACLU state chapters and other groups in Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia.

Penalties for violating the updated Massachusetts statute include five years in prison or a $10,000 fine or both.