Booksellers Sue State Over Internet Obscenity Law

Several Boston-area groups — including booksellers — have filed suit over a state law created to protect minors from online obscenity.

The tightened law took effect this week and expands the definition of sexually explicit material on the Internet to include images, text messages and e-mails.

The changes won overwhelming legislative approval in the wake of a case involving a Beverly man who sent lewd messages to a 13-year-old girl. His convictions were overturned by the state’s highest court because the existing law’s language did not address texts or e-mails.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the amended language into law in April.

But now the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Photographic Resource Center in Boston and local booksellers claim the law is too broadly written and censors free speech.

Carole Horne, general manager at Harvard Bookstore, says her shop’s profit margin relies heavily on Internet promotion.

“A lot of the book jackets have photographs of nudes, some of them deal with sexually explicit material, and we are concerned that somebody could decide that’s harmful to minors and go after us,” Horne said.

Penalties for breaking the law include five years in prison or a $10,000 fine.

Glenn Ruga, executive director of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, says the amended law threatens his organization’s freedom of expression.

“The presentation of images is what we do,” Ruga said. “We use our website to present photography.
Generally, we aren’t presenting controversial images. Sometimes we have nudity in our physical gallery, sometimes we have it online. Hopefully the law will be overturned.”

Other plaintiffs in the suit include the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Porter Square Books and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

Defenders of the re-written law claim it’s critical for protecting minors from Internet predators.

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