A federal judge struck down an Alaska law that sought to hold adults criminally liable for distributing sexually explicit material to minors over the Internet, proving again that states’ efforts to secure the Web are often too broad and far-reaching to be constitutional.
Judge Ralph Beistline agreed with the coalition of plaintiffs that filed a lawsuit last August charging the broad state statute violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment, though he said the state legislature’s goal was admirable.
The sticking point for Judge Beistline was the fact that the Internet lacks a reliable mechanism for verifying the age of Internet users.
“Individuals who fear the possibility of a minor receiving speech intended for an adult may refrain from exercising their right to free speech at all,” stated the judge in his ruling.
The state argued the law was designed to target sexual predators from sending pornography to children, but the court found the law was too broad for what it aimed to do.
Judge Beistline said he believed lawmakers can revisit the statute in their efforts to protect children, saying if the governing body “intends this statute to only criminalize the grooming of children for sexual abuse, the legislature can say so.”
First introduced by Alaska’s Governor Parnell, the state legislature unanimously passed it as part of an omnibus crime bill that toughened the statute. Last fall, a group including librarians, booksellers, artists and the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit saying it violated free speech.
While state lawmakers get to work revising the law, free speech advocates are cheering the ruling.
“What the court pointed out is that we all agree that children deserve special protections, and there are laws around the country that ensure that they have those protections,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska. “But the court also pointed out that what adults want and need and are protected by the First Amendment to access is different than what children can access. And what we can’t do is use a big broad hammer and slam it at the Internet and say the Internet is shut down, and adults can only read what is available or suitable to children.”
The ruling comes on the heels of several new state laws regarding the Internet and censorship. Tennessee recently passed a bill, which its governor Bill Haslam signed into law, that makes it a crime to display online images that could “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress.” Violators could spend up to a year in jail or pay $2,500 in fines.
Detractors of the law say it is unconstitutional since part of the law states the accused “should have known” the pictures would be offensive, a caveat nearly impossible to prove.
The Tennessee case raised concern by many that the Internet was being unduly regulated, but the recent federal court for Alaska’s law indicates the nation’s higher courts seem to be ruling in favor of First Amendment rights when it comes to the Internet.
States like Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia all have passed online indecency laws similar to Tennessee’s in the past. In the majority of states, the courts have ruled in favor of striking down the law as unconstitutional.
Similar legislation in Ohio survived a court challenge, but was limited to person-to-person communications, in which the sender knew the recipient was a minor.